Considering Control and Regaining Curiosity— How can we Make Online Relating Work for Us?

By Felicity Runchman

 

Online Relating & Me

Social-media first came into my life when I was well into my twenties, hence already an ‘adult’.  However, I was surprised by its ability to throw me back into what felt like a very adolescent state of anxiety – deliberating over what to post, who to ‘friend’, and how to present myself. It was tantalising for a cautious introvert like myself to suddenly be able to share things with a wide audience from what felt like a safe place (behind the screen), whilst feeling free from immediate concern as to how people might react face-to-face.  At the same time, how dizzying and scary it felt to know that others would notice and react to my material in ways that may or may not be made apparent to me.

Relatively new to social media and online sharing, I wrote a blog when I was travelling in Mexico, Central and South America between 2008 and 2009 in which I freely shared a lot of very personal thoughts, feelings and processes, only to feel shy and awkward when I returned home and came face-to-face with the people who had been reading my words and looking at my photos. This was what I now understand to be a mild example of what the American psychologist John Suler, who specialises in the study of online behaviour, describes as benign online disinhibition – ie. when in the perceived-to-be ‘separate’ realm of being online, people divulge far more about their softer emotions and sensitivities than they otherwise might.  On the flip-side, it was also fascinating, and sometimes uncomfortable for me to start observing people I knew developing online personas that were very different from how I knew them to be offline – personas that were often more snide, aggressive or irritatingly grandiose and narcissistic.  This exemplified what Suler describes as toxic online disinhibition – ie. when in this perceived-to-be ‘other-ly’ state of being online, people vent and display the less palatable parts of themselves that they dare not exhibit offline.

 

Control & Online Relational Encounters

Whilst continuing my training as a counsellor between 2010 and 2011, I worked on placement at a young people’s counselling service and found many of my clients to be grappling with issues regarding self-presentation and relational activity online.  Clients would describe, for example, posting things that they subsequently regretted, or feeling anxious and unhappy when friends posted things about them or tagged them in photos without permission. Other common themes in my work concerned clients getting caught up in intense online arguments or emotional outpourings and rapidly creating relationships with the types of people they might never meet or connect with offline.

My experience with these clients inspired the research dissertation I went on to complete as part of my MA in Counselling & Psychotherapy, entitled ‘Control Over Relational Self – Young People’s Use Of The Internet For Self-Expression & Relational Encounter’.  Given the client group I was working with at the time, the stories and perspectives of 18-25 year olds formed the mainstay of my data and their experience was my focus. However, much of what I discovered applied to a wider age group, including myself and my peers, as well as my parents and their generation, many of whom were gradually ‘coming onboard’ with social media.

Through my clinical experience and research, I concluded  that a lot of online relational activity is about control.  Different factors including the type of online medium we’re using, how familiar we are with it, and how secure or satisfied we’re feeling in other aspects of our lives can influence our need to exhibit different levels of control over relational selves online, and this quest for, or abandonment of, control will also be manifest in different ways.  High levels of control over our relational selves may be apparent through behaviours such as showcasing the parts of ourselves we want to be recognised and seen on social media, deleting without discussion (‘de-friending’ or ‘unfollowing’ people without engaging in any kind of dialogue), stalking (searching around for information on others online without their knowledge – I’m sure we’ve all done it!) and engaging in high levels of editing/image control (for example, untagging ourselves from unflattering photos or going back to alter more impulsively posted content).  Low levels of control over our relational selves, on the other hand, can be seen as examples of indiscriminate broadcasting (people publicising everything from what they had for breakfast to their innermost thoughts), accelerated intimacy (the quick-fire sharing of highly personal information that sometimes happens in online forums or on blogs with complete strangers) and poorly-thought through posting (unthinkingly putting material online that could be seen as shocking, offensive, or just odd).  

My research and observation has revealed that, over time, and often with learning acquired through painful or embarrassing experience, a more balanced exercise of control over online activity gradually emerges when people use online media for self-presentation and relational purposes. Balance becomes possible when simpler and more functional activities such as following (checking in on social media to see what others have been up to), arranging face-to-face contact (sorting out offline social plans online), and exchanging information (be that about music, politics, art and events etc.) become more central to what individuals do online when relating to one another.  For most people, this levelling out of control in online relational activity, like any developmental process, takes time, trial and error.  However, individuals can go back to either extreme in their online behaviour (anxious and hyper-controlled or more capricious and ill-contained) at any point depending on situational and relational circumstances – for example, feeling lonely, bored, finding themselves in a new environment, or beginning to use a new app or online platform.

 

Online Counselling

A professional progression of my interests in online relational activity led me to train as an online counsellor in 2012.  I primarily focus on text-based work, which involves either conducting ‘synchronous’ (live chat) instant-messaging sessions, or ‘asynchronous’ message sessions (through which a client and I respond to one another via e-mail, developing a structured correspondence).  Although I’ve also come to offer audio-webcam sessions (which is perhaps the closest approximation to a face-to-face session), the text-based sessions, where my clients and I never see each other’s faces or hear each other’s voices, remain my preferred way of working.  Perhaps this is due to the increased element of the unknown, and the inbuilt challenge (albeit quite a liberating challenge) of building a relationship with another person who, in physical or conventional terms, remains unseen. In addition to this, the emphasis placed on the power of the written word to communicate and create meaning excites me.  

Therapeutically, text-based online work can be incredibly useful – in terms of the increased scope for projection, and the amplification of opportunities for fantasy, transference and counter-transference.  Without me in front of their eyes, clients may not have a clue about things such as my age, ethnicity or personal style. This often means they make me who they need me to be, which can be very telling and fruitful to explore.  In some respects it perhaps marks a return to the early Freudian idea of the analyst being a ‘blank screen’ for their patient’s projections. Naturally, I too speculate and wonder about the aspects of my clients that remain hidden in text-based work and this provides much food for thought in supervision.

There are two other key therapeutic advantages to text-based online therapy.  First, both counsellor and client retain a written record of what was discussed in their work together, which can be helpful for both to refer back to between sessions, and often quite comforting and heartening for clients to read and reflect upon after the work comes to an end.  Second, it can feel like a safe ‘starting place’ for clients who are seeking support yet, due to shame, social anxiety or other inhibitions, can’t face the thought of going to speak to someone face-to-face.

Of course, some might argue that working online with such clients is collusive or allows them to remain ‘stuck’ and distanced from ‘real-world’ relating.  Whilst I can appreciate this perspective, and feel it’s important to appropriately challenge clients who perhaps retreat too far into an online ‘comfort zone’, I’d rather use innovation and new technology to enable some form of supportive connection with such clients than to leave them in isolation.  These clients don’t always remain stuck, either. After a series of online text-based sessions, clients (particularly at the young people’s counselling service where I do most of my text-based online work) often feel ready and more able to communicate face-to-face – be that to another counsellor, or just to their families and friends.  

There’s also great flexibility and scope to experiment therapeutically with online counselling – sometimes as an adjunct or alternative to face-to-face work.  A very controlled and precise e-mail client with a propensity to meticulously edit all their material might do well to be encouraged to try ‘taking a risk’ with a live-chat session.  Similarly, a shy text-based client beginning to build confidence might, at some point, feel able to test that new-found confidence through trialing an audio-webcam session with their counsellor.  Provided it’s carefully considered and taken to supervision, a mixture of online and face-to-face sessions can allow for continued connection and therapeutic change with clients who, for example, move away, are carers or travel frequently with work.  Ex-pats, aid-workers and children of mixed-parentage (with one British parent but usually living overseas in the native-country of their non-British parent) constitute groups of individuals who I have found to make particular use of online counselling when away from wherever they might call ‘home’. This has often felt very powerful – and, occasionally, they’ve come to see me face-to-face when in UK.  

 

A Call for Reflection

It’s with subtle and  increasing sophistication that online relating has come to impact so many of our lives so profoundly over recent years.  Yet it is something we seem to rarely reflect upon or take stock of. I’d encourage us to keep bringing it back to our consciousness for consideration.  Our ‘online lives’ and ‘online activities’ can no longer be neatly demarcated or separated off from the rest of our day-to-day living—they’re interwoven.  Nevertheless, it’s important to keep teasing out some of the threads, thinking about what online technology brings into our relational worlds, and what goes on when we use it for relational purposes.

An ever-expanding array of ways to express and present ourselves to others online provides us with the power to finely tune and hone our communications, granting us control and the means, in many respects, to have relational activity ‘on our terms’.  This can, as I hope I’ve illustrated, be hugely beneficial – particularly for people who find other types of communication challenging. It can also, however, be seductive, encouraging us to let go of the types of caution and restraint we might otherwise have in place when relating to others.

In recent weeks, many people have begun to question, and even  turn away from, the online platforms that many embraced a decade ago, for example, Facebook in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal.  ‘Digital de-tox’ has also become a buzzword, indicating recognition amongst tech-saturated individuals and mental health professionals that the online world can control us just as much as, if not more than, we control it.  These developments serve as a reminder that there’s more to be known and experienced within our lives (particularly relationally speaking) than that which can be accessed through a screen. However, what we’ve come to know and experience through online relating over recent years is something we cannot undo.  Therefore managing, considering, and seeking to use online relating to our advantage, may be a more realistic and helpful approach than trying to turn away from it completely. To ask ourselves (and, as counsellors, to ask our clients) what we’re doing in our online interactions (be that, for example, hiding, exposing ourselves, taking risks, or managing relational distance) can be a revealing exercise.  We might want to question how happy we (or our clients) are with these habits of self-presentation and interaction, and if there are other ways to meet our relational goals. As with so many behaviours consciousness raising—seeking simple awareness of what we’re doing and why—brings some of the control over online relating back into our hands.

You can visit the Association for Counselling and Therapy Online here.

References 

Balick, A. (2013). The Psychodynamics Of Social Networking: Connected- Up Instantaneous Culture And The Self. London: Karnac​.

Cundy, L. (2015). Attachment And Digital Communication. Therapy Today, 26 (1), 18- 23.​

Suler, J. (2016). Psychology Of The Digital Age: Humans Become Electric. London: Cambridge University Press.​

Turkle, S. (2011). Alone Together. New York, NY: Basic Books.​

 

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