Texting: Is it helpful or harmful to your relationships? A therapeutic look at one of America’s most popular forms of communication

Looking back over the past few decades, it is amazing to consider the ways in which technology and communication has dramatically evolved. My experience with the whole phenomenon began in middle school, when I discovered the bountiful gifts of the Internet.I remember it like it was yesterday… Spending a couple hours here and there in chatrooms while my mother periodically wandered in to read conversations over my shoulder (despite my incessant protesting). In high school, I got my first cell phone and began using numerous AIM screen names, spending a few months to a year with each until I outgrew it and registered a new one.  In college, I remember walking to classes and being fascinated by the amount of people talking on their cellphones. You became more of an oddity if you did NOT have a cell-phone in plain view than if you did. And you were equally shunned if you didn’t have an account on facebook, but that’s a blog for another day. Now, texting… texting didn’t blow up so-to-speak until around the past few years or so, I’d say. And while I could take each of these various forms of communication and offer my opinion as to how they have come to shape the ways in which we communicate in relationships involving significant others (and I probably will, in time, explore each in a blog post), today, I’m only going to focus on my experience, and the experiences I’ve gathered from others, with regard to texting.

In DBT (Dialectical-Behavior Therapy), Marsha Linehan offers the notion of Reasonable Mind and Emotional Mind. Reasonable mind denotes your rational, thinking, logical mind. This mind state most appropriately handles things such as making plans, solving logical problems, following instructions, and managing things objectively. The second state of mind Linehan identifies is Emotion Mind, known as a state of mind that occurs when one’s emotions are in-control and running the show. Emotion Mind is beneficial for fueling various types of motivation. When driven by intense emotion, people undertake exceptional feats. It is our emotions that separate us from each other and make each of us uniquely different. 

So, what does that have to do with texting? Well, to better facilitate my understanding of texting’s pros and cons, I will metaphorically and literally utilize Linehan’s two mind states. Texting’s most easily identifiable pro is its ability to swap information quickly; yet, as with most things, its biggest pro is often inappropriately used. Texting can efficiently, and fairly successfully, communicate thoughts that occur in reasonable mind, without leaving much room for over-analysis or unnecessary speculation. “What time do you want to meet?” “Where are we meeting?” “Did you bring the book?” “There’s traffic” “It’s raining here.” “The meeting ran over.” “I’ll be late.” The list of appropriate phrase usage goes on and on. It’s hard to misunderstand facts and logistical details. My clients rarely come in to my office obsessing over what he/she meant by, “I have a doctor’s appt. tomorrow at 3pm” (What does he meeeeeeean?!?).

The problem arises when people start using texting to communicate thoughts that are born in Emotion mind. There are just too many opportunities for misunderstanding…and the lack of associated body language, facial expressions, and voice tones creates unnecessary and could-have-been-avoided anxiety. I’ve had clients recount distressing arguments that occurred entirely on texting, (“hold on, this was on text, let me just read you the conversation” [pulls out her phone]). A study by Albert Mehrabian concluded that 55% of communication is body language, 38% is tone of voice, and only 7% has to do with the words spoken/typed. While these numbers might be challenged with regard to preciseness, the overall point remains that we are missing too many communicative cues when using text messages. This lack of cues produces a potentially damaging over-analysis of emotion mind texting, which seems to affect my female clients/friends more so than my male clients/friends. In my opinion, this excessive rumination has proven to lend itself, at times, to an increase in anxious and obsessive thoughts, and ultimately, a destructive and exhausting waste of time.

Does Emotion Mind texting have any benefits? As much as I don’t want to admit it, I have identified what I think are some benefits. Despite the aforementioned types of communication for which texting cannot account (body language, etc.), texting provides a certain level of security under which certain emotion thoughts can be uttered that might otherwise be fearfully stifled in an in-person or over-the-phone conversation.  While one begrudgingly gets off the phone with a loved one after being unable to voice his/her opinion on something, he/she might find it quite easy to send a follow-up text, expressing the very thought they could not find the courage to voice. However, while texting allows people a space to communicate hard-to-communicate thoughts/emotions, one could argue that this very seeming benefit is turning us into a society of cowards by reinforcing our inability to express ourselves in difficult interactions.

So, where do we go from here? It is my recommendation that one stick to using texting to fulfill the expression of reasonable mind thoughts. While you may feel more comfortable using texting to communicate difficult emotion mind thoughts, you strip yourself of the ability to grow and build mastery with regard to effectively handling and interacting in difficult situations with others. Furthermore, when you communicate emotion mind thoughts in text form, you open the door for potentially destructive misunderstandings and the possibility of turning an anxiety-provoking situation into an unavoidable anxiety-producing occurrence. Be kind to yourself, validate your fear, and choose to grow.

For more information on me, visit my profile on psychologytoday.com

Julie

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