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By far, the best gift I received this Christmas was the book, How to Break Up With Your Phone, by Catherine Price.
At first, I didn’t even want to admit I needed this kind of help. After all, I work in the wellness space, leading yoga classes, teaching and performing circus arts, and giving healing Thai massage sessions. If anyone should be able to have a healthy balance with their online life, it should be me.
And yet, ironically, I was using the excuse that the administrative and promotional needs of being a freelancer were keeping me constantly attached to my phone.
I knew in the back of my mind that my life seemed to somehow lack the brilliance and vigor it used to have. I was making excuses for this like, oh I must just be getting older, or blaming it on the better career, or the romantic partner, or the children that I should have but don’t. I was blaming it on everything except for being constantly anxious and distracted by my phone.
I didn’t realize that the odds were stacked against me, that my phone and the apps on it were specifically designed to manipulate the dopamine and serotonin hormones in my brain to keep me as engaged as possible, as much as possible.
I had gone through one of the roughest, most dramatic periods of my life over the last few years. Everything seemed in chaos all around me—physical injuries, emotional trauma, the deterioration of loving relationships, loss of income, and the changing of social groups—all added to my stress.
The ease at which I could soothe myself with my phone from all of this was enabling atrophy in my emotional muscles. I didn’t even realize it, but I was using my phone as a protective shield, my best defense against actually being vulnerable to the moment.
There were times I was losing whole portions of the day to mindless scrolling. I constantly felt low-level stress and anxiousness in the back of my mind.
I had tried through willpower alone to cut back on my phone usage. It would usually work for a day or so, and then, all it would take was one slightly emotionally uncomfortable moment, one day of feeling a little sick, one challenging task, and bam—I was back there seeking comfort and distraction from my phone.
My phone, full of information about my friends and loved ones, about all the happenings in the world, was an endless entertaining slot machine of different apps to check. My phone, regardless of its negative side effects was also a useful tool that I derived a lot of enjoyment from. I needed more than just willpower to change my relationship with it.
I needed support and a plan.
What surfaced first as I started this recovery was dealing with my shame around it. Not only was I doing a bad job of regulating my phone usage, but I was also ashamed to be this way.
I knew I wanted to be more productive and I felt like a failure. And I would protect myself from those feelings of failure by further distracting myself with my phone. Like feeling compelled to watch just one more YouTube clip of Stephen Colbert as I was falling asleep at night instead of taking just five minutes to reflect about the day I just had.
It was a self-perpetuating loop of continued avoidance. Not only was I distracting myself from external reality, I was hiding from my internal self too.
The book contained a 30-day plan, which was great for me because it addressed both changing my habitual patterns and also the underlying emotional reasons those patterns came to be. It guided me through one small change or journaling exercise to try each day, so it was not overwhelming.
Some of these changes included: installing a tracking app, reorganizing my home screen, getting a separate alarm clock, learning how to use an app blocker, and set up away message for texts. And if I missed a day in the program, it was no big deal, I could just to carry on where I left off.
In all honesty, I have really only been able to permanently put into practice about half of the things the book suggested. And it took me 45 days, not 30, to complete. Additionally, I have had one or two short relapses into my old destructive patterns since. Even considering all of that, I still feel going through this process has had an incredible positive impact on my life and emotional well-being.
My dependence on my phone grew so gradually, it was not until I spent some time away from it that I could even detect how self-sabotaging my patterns had become.
My phone had become the easiest and fastest thing to reach for, and it required zero work, growth, or vulnerability to use. I had not, however, become more distracted and anxious overnight. It was a slow process that I had allowed to grow unconsciously over years.
My phone, unlike other humans, is always with me, always there to soothe or distract me from any emotional discomfort day and night. Also, unlike reaching out to other humans, reaching out for my phone did not provide any of the benefits that risking vulnerability in relationships can offer, such as physical comfort, feeling connected, and continued support.
Currently, so much has changed. It is like I am watching the world come alive again. I was sabotaging myself with my phone habits—and I didn’t even realize it.
These past few years I thought the world had gotten dull, that there must be something wrong with me.
But there was nothing wrong with me, I had just let the collapse of my awareness limit my ability to perceive and be open to the magic of the world.
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