I’m sure you’ve noticed how your phone has taken hold of major portions of your attention. I, for one, am frustrated by how often my attention gets pulled to check messages and emails. The little pings our phones send are tiny rewards that have a larger effect on our ability to focus than we may think. Being a child of the 70’s and 80’s, I remember a time when there was only one phone in the house. It was in the hallway. When people called, it was understood that they would let it ring at least six times because you might be in the yard or in the kitchen. People waited and had much more patience for response times.
This was also well before Google had mapped the whole world down to each individual residence. When someone was gone, there was no way of reaching them until they either came back or got in touch with you. While this situation had its own anxieties, it does not compare with the hyperactive mental activity that now occurs when I text or post via my phone. I find myself feeling a powerful longing for a response within seconds of reaching out. Seconds! And very often a reply does come in seconds!
And those text and email replies come with a sound cue, like a bell or a bird call, or whatever setting you’ve assigned. Those sound cues are a major player in deepening the neurological craving for immediate response. A brief visit with the work of Ivan Pavlov will clarify how bells and sound cues not only affect our neurological landscape but can in fact control it.
Should we put our phones on silent? For certain hours of the day, I think that would be a very wise practice. If you find yourself waking up and reaching for your phone, see if you can lie in bed and give space to that impulse for five minutes or so. Morning time is when we have the clearest and calmest sense of self available to us. So use that time wisely for as long as you are able. Do not try to get rid of an impulse to check your phone. Make note of the impulse. Take three deep breaths, and create a bit of space between your brain and your body’s response. Then calmly proceed to check your phone knowing full well you are gripped by an impulse.
But impulses can only run rampant when our attention is idle. When we place our attention on an activity that has emotional importance to us, we do not have a fixation with our gadgets. The healthiest solution to reducing the power of a fixation is not to try and wrestle with the desire. But rather to seek out more meaningful engagement. Behavior control is often a setup for frustration because refraining to do something is working in the negative. Often it will only be a matter of time before our resolve will ebb, especially when navigating a compulsion of such low consequence. The tiny, inconsequential nag to pay attention to our phones seems mostly harmless but it does have a cost and it does take its toll.
The impulse to check our phones is an indication that our attention has not really been placed anywhere at the moment. When we are engaged in something, we are not thinking about our phones. To release ourselves from the grips of a phone obsession we need to locate a more substantial mental and emotional engagement that will connect our attention to something or someone more meaningful to us.
The journey of self improvement and cellphone addictions involves turning towards a true and personal interest rather than trying to constantly refrain or turn away from a phone fixation. When we find a larger interest and a larger sense of purpose the fixation fades away.
One reason it may be difficult to locate a larger interest may be due to low levels of the “encouragement” chemical in the brain. Working at a deficit of dopamine causes a slippery slope into a lack of motivation. To counter this possible trend, it is important to have one way of locating a feeling of being proud of yourself every day. Make a conscious choice to give yourself credit for all the “small wins” you achieve every day. Acknowledging what you are doing right forges a strength of mind to pivot towards calm resolve rather than let all the things that go wrong bury you in frustration.
I like to call this concept, “Respect the Penny.” A penny is the smallest unit of wealth possible. We do not even really recognize a penny as anything valuable. But the big money is comprised of pennies. Accumulating pennies is inherently valuable by definition. Having a penny is a start. Letting wealth build from absolutely nothing develops one’s character in a priceless way. Developing character and a calm disposition is the most valuable pursuit one could ever invest in. To start that journey of self improvement we can begin by honoring the small stuff as equally important as the so-called big stuff.
We can not leap to the next skill set. We move towards improvement one step at a time. What is a “penny activity” you could find today that could be like the little ping from your cell phone activating reward centers in your brain?
What could you do that would make you proud of yourself today? Be sure to have the answer to that question not just involve refraining from an activity (which can be very helpful). Try to also find an engagement that gives a sense of accomplishment. Read a chapter of a book. Prep three meals for the week… there are countless small fun activities to engage in and give yourself credit for.
Ultimately, only you will know what you have achieved. Only you will decide if you approve of your character or not. Your own company is the only reliable source of support you will ever have in life. If you have feelings of disappointment in yourself, do not run from hearing from yourself about these pains. It is equally important to not allow those critical voices to go on and on with constant criticism. Self improvement involves not allowing a sense of regret to spiral into a loop of shame or guilt.
There are three kinds of shame humans feel.
- Primary personal shame
- Family shame
- Cultural shame
Primary personal shame is actually quite healthy and very good and natural to feel. These feelings indicate to us when we have not behaved in a way we approve of personally. It is experienced as a deep realization and when we let the painful feeling of regret in, we are quickly restored to our natural eagerness to be our best. Primary shame keeps us on track and in alignment with our spirit, and our connection to each other’s spirit. It is a natural balancing system.
Family shame is not healthy and never ends until we put up a boundary with the people we grew up with. Family shame is caused by the people we have deep emotional attachments to and who we are constantly trying to please and be pleased by as a way of feeling safe and having a sense of belonging. We want to be approved of by the people in our lives. We alter our behavior to please them and give them what they indicate they want from us. But this often occurs at the expense of what is best for our own personal development. Our families do not consciously want to hold us back from improving or developing our characters. But we were often trained to put their needs subconsciously before our own. The needs of family members often come before we even have any idea what our own needs might be, so that for years we learn to think that what our family wants of us is what we want of ourselves. Eventually, it is our destiny to discover our own unique and independent interests separate from and sometimes contrary to what our family wants of us.
Releasing ourselves from the cycle of family shame is a very brave and challenging path to walk. Choosing to stand firm in your own perspective may feel selfish but in the long run, it actually brings much greater health and joy to a family system than would be possible when everyone lives in a state of constant compromise. Everyone is free to live how they feel they must live. A family member is free to believe you owe them certain behaviors. And you are free to either disagree and go your own way or try to give them what they are wanting of you.
People in intimate relationships work to give the other person what they need in order to stay close and valued by each other. These relationships are by choice and feel inspired and supportive.
There are no relationships that can function from unconditional love except for the relationship between an infant and their parents. Once a person reaches the age of five or so, we all learn that being cared about depends on how we treat other people. If someone does not inspire you to care about them and you find yourself continuing to give them energy against your natural impulses, you are in the second sort of shame- the family shame. And that is a cycle that does not end until you break out of it.
The third kind of shame – Cultural shame is basically the same as family shame only in the larger context of our ethnicity, nationality, gender, or other major cultural contracts that give us a sense of belonging. Being part of a culture requires that we value what that culture values. When we find that we do not have respect for certain aspects of the culture we belong to, we often feel shame and confusion because we want to be “good people” but also do not want to ignore our inner sense of right and wrong.
Releasing family and cultural shame loops and recognizing our healthy personal shame moments is a huge step forward in the journey of self improvement. We are less likely to seek constant distractions like cell phone obsessions when we are at peace with our own company.
But there are no definitive answers to how best to navigate the challenges we face in modern times. While writing this blog post, my phone pinged several times. And my hand reached to see the message faster than I was able to even be aware of the impulse. I’m hooked. All I can really do is recognize that the cell phone phenomenon gripping the globe at this time is much bigger than any one of us. Large movements can not be fought. Forces of nature can not be stopped, only followed with as much awareness as we can locate.
How do you handle your impulses and addictions? I would be happy to hear from you about your thoughts on self improvement and cellphone addictions.