Everyone has stuff they hide from the world. As a general rule, I’m weirdly impervious to embarrassment, and willing to talk about almost anything. But, like anyone, I have a few things that I’d be horrified to admit. I have skeletons. They’re just super boring ones.
Until the last six months or so, I’ve had a serious smartphone problem.
You’re gonna laugh, and think “but everyone spends way too much time on their phone”, but I had a serious smartphone problem.
In the 80s, they ran those ads about alcoholism where the slogan was “if alcohol is causing a problem, maybe it is the problem” and I would think about those ads as I sat, paralyzed, scrolling through articles on my phone. Instead of... living, I guess. Work that I desperately needed to do. Important deadlines. Steps towards realizing lifelong dreams. Or even ordinary moments—sharing experiences with my kids in the precious few years they're still at home.
I’d watch this happening, and I’d tell myself how big a problem it was, and how awful I was being, and I would try to bully myself off of my phone. I’d delete the game I was addicted to… but a new one would take it’s place. I’d try to get off of Facebook… but something would keep drawing me back.
To make it more confusing, a lot of my smartphone use was healthy. I would use my phone to foster connections and stay in touch. But there was this other kind of use of it… and I could feel the difference in my bones. I would enter into mindless-addictive-zombie-phone-mode and I could not get back out of it. When I was under the iNfluence, it wasn’t bringing me joy, but I was unable to stop.
At a certain point, I considered asking my friends who’d gone through actual chemical addictions for help. It was that bad. The only thing that stopped me was how silly I would feel. I mean, these friends have fought and won against actual substances with chemical grips on their minds and lives. I was just someone without enough willpower to put down my phone and do my work.
Then came the day when I realized that my phone habit wasn’t just a vice. It was also a precious compass. And, like any compass, it only works if you learn to read it possibly.
Sometimes, when I have a huge problem that I can’t seem to solve, I try to reframe by asking myself “what if this problem was actually a super valuable blessing?”.
Then, I ask myself how this horrible thing could possibly be a blessing.
And then I listen carefully for the answer.
I had nothing to lose, because berating myself for being a terrible person wasn’t working anyway. Willpower was not enough.
I began a new practice of listening. Every time I had that feeling, like I was about to zone out on my phone… that under-the-iNfluence feeling… I would pause for just a second. I would ask myself what I was feeling. What I wanted. And what needs I had that were unmet. That’s all. Five or ten seconds to think about that, and then on to the phone.
I learned the urge to go under the iNfluence was not the thing preventing me from heading towards my dreams. It was my brain putting on the breaks because I was headed in the wrong direction. Because my current path was not meeting a need, or not in alignment with my values, or just not something I had the tools to do. Because on some deep level, my guts didn’t agree with the plan that my mind had come up with.
I learned that the moment that urge appeared, I could listen carefully to figure out what was wrong. Maybe I didn’t have the information I needed to do the next thing on my list well. Maybe I didn’t agree that thing was a good idea. Maybe there was a gauge dinging somewhere deep inside me, because I was too tired or too lonely, or feeling a particular kind of hunger and this was the way to silence the beeping light.
I learned that my phone was this hugely valuable check in with some inner, wise part of myself.
And then, I started seeing those ten second pauses as some of the most valuable moments of the day. It was like a game of hotter-colder. The urge to pull out the phone was my brain shouting “COLDER”. And if I paused and listened with as much gentleness and bravery as I could, I could hear where the “hotter” was coming from.
I used no discipline at all. Eventually, when the listening became so well established and second nature, the problem faded away on it’s own. I would pull out my phone, and check for that under the iNfluence feeling (sometimes, it’s not compulsive at all—I can tell the difference). If it was that compulsive feeling, I’d listen for what needed changing and nine times out of ten, I’d take action and resolve the problem.
One time in ten, I change nothing. I validate my feeling that, say, I don’t like making phone calls to plumbers because I hate phoning strangers and I don’t know how to find the right one and a plumber was mean to me once…. And then I tell myself gently that I can’t actually live my entire life doing dishes in the bathroom sink and I need to make the call.
But it feels different, now. I don’t yell at myself for the desire to escape. I don’t make the call under a narrative of “act like a grown up, you jackass”. I make it from a gentler space. One of “I want you to have a kitchen that flows nicely so you can have that warm happy glow while you’re cooking, and this is a hard thing that must be done to make that happen”.
Then maybe I Facebook for a few minutes until I’m ready, and I do it. My soul is reasonable, after all. It will negotiate if I listen to it first.
This tiny practice—a brief check in, followed by a bit of kindness—has changed everything.
It’s brought me home.
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