Oct/Nov 2011

addicted to e-mails

Dear White Rabbit

Hi, I know there are all these jokes about people being “addicted” to Facebook, Twitter etc and I don’t think that’s me, but I do notice that when I start opening my e-mails I get carried away and only “come back down to earth” some hours later, feeling exhausted and washed out. Often I don’t get to the creative work I want to do, which gives me real pleasure, because of this kind of thing. What do you think about the idea that I am addicted to suffering somehow?!

Thanks a lot,


Dear Walt,

I have decided to answer your question from a practical approach instead of unpacking the existential question – what is suffering. Nevertheless, in my opinion, suffering is a perception. So here are a few thoughts about suffering when it is linked to the concept of addiction in terms of ‘using’ emailing as your ‘drug of choice’.

Some people are addicted to the need to access cyberspace and all that goes with it. They can hole up in their room playing ‘games’ hardly connecting with anything that lives and breathes for hours, for days, maybe weeks and even months at a time. Others, on the other hand, connect to people in cyberspace while seemingly appearing to be present in a social environment. I once saw a couple having a so-called intimate dinner, yet both of them were glued to their cell phones communicating with someone else. In both scenarios the relationship with self and others is severely limited and/or ceases to exist while they are gripped in a virtual reality of their own making.

Does this make their lives unmanageable or a complete shambles? This will depend on how the degree of suffering is experienced by them and others who are on the receiving end of this behaviour. For some, being endlessly holed up in a room might cause suffering or it might not, for others, communicating through cyberspace has become the norm and very socially acceptable. Your clue here is, the duration of your time spent in cyberspace that makes you feel exhausted and washed out. It stops you from getting to your creativity which gives you pleasure. You choose to do an activity that ultimately causes you to suffer. Here is a suggestion to find out whether you are driven by and/or addicted to suffering.

What if you decided to take your fingers off the keyboard for a week and write, or paint, or do whatever you do without using your computer or any other appliance that gets you into cyberspace? While your fingers are otherwise occupied here is a ‘Five Step Exercise’ you can do.

Step One

Start noticing what happens when the urge to ‘use’ occurs during this week of abstinence. Keep a journal and jot down every time you have the urge to touch the keyboard. Write down the time this happens, the situation or event that is currently happening that make you want to ‘use’, what are your current feelings e.g. bored and what emotional needs are perhaps not being met e.g. the need to connect.

At the end of the week take all the information you have gathered and examine the contents for emerging patterns around:

• Times when the urge to ‘use’ is the strongest
• Any similarities in the situations and/or events that trigger the urge to ‘use’
• Any similarities around the feelings you were experiencing
• Any similarities around any emotional needs not being met

Step Two

Then ask yourself, what do these feelings remind you of? It could be about something that happened a long time ago around a situation that you at the time had no control of. It could even be around a belief that was passed onto to you from your family. Such a belief could be that ‘good’ children should be ‘busy doing their own thing all the time and not bothering grown-ups’ It might even remind you of an emotional need that wasn’t met. This emotional need could be that you needed to be acknowledged or heard. Write this down

Step Three

Then ask yourself, what was the past action you took then in order to make myself feel better or feel safe? These actions are called ‘coping strategies’ for example, by shutting up and not voicing your feelings, by denying your feelings by ‘keeping busy’ or by trying to fix your emotional needs by finding another way to be acknowledged and/or heard such as watching T.V. programmes where we can identify with a character and get a ‘feel good’ sensation through what they are doing. Please note that at this stage your ‘coping strategies’ probably had nothing to do with surfing cyberspace just as a person who abuses substances didn’t immediately start using.

You can plot these ‘coping strategies’. Take a piece of paper and divide it into 2 columns. On the one side write down the all the different ‘coping strategies’ you used and on the other side write down the all the ‘situations/events’ when you used them.

Step Four

Then there came a point over a period of time when these ‘coping strategies’ were in a sense, replaced by our ‘drug of choice’ (in your case, spending copious times emailing). Somehow this ‘drug of choice’ became the perfect ‘package’ where all our ‘coping strategies’ found a ‘haven’ or ‘vehicle’ that made us feel better or safe. We could use it every time we began to feel slightly uncomfortable. It became the ultimate ‘fix’.

So part of your enquiry would then be to ask yourself, when did you start using emailing on your computer i.e. ‘the perfect package/haven/vehicle’ as your ‘drug of choice?’ How long were you able to keep ‘using’ and get your ‘fix’ and still feel great? This is known as the ‘honeymoon period.’ It reinforces our behaviour. All we experience is the ‘high’. This part of the ‘fix’ is known as the ‘pay-off’. It is what you described as ‘getting carried away’ whilst emailing and only coming back to earth some time later.

Step Five

What we are not aware of is that what we are doing also has a cost attached to it. Then you need to ask yourself – When did this activity/behaviour/emailing get to the point that you started feeling ‘exhausted and washed out?’ How often have you being doing this regardless of this result? This is the cost factor.

Finally, you then need to ask yourself – How has being ‘exhausted and washed out’ affected other areas of my life?’ You mention your creative work, what is the impact on that? Does it have an affect your ability to earn or what about your time spent being in direct contact with others such as your immediate family, is this diminished? You need to take into account of whether this cost factor has permeated into all areas of your life.

If this cost has affected other areas you can safely say that your self-care system that is involved with ensuring you are nurtured and nourished has broken down and that your life has become unmanageable and that you are addicted to suffering in the form of self-harming activity that is exhausting and draining. Even if only a few areas are affected you need to take heed because you are on ‘the danger list’ and sooner or later you could tip over the edge.

As Always

The White Rabbit

P.S. For those readers who struggle with a any behaviour that has made their lives ‘unmanageable’ you can use this Five Step exercise, just transpose ‘emailing’ with your own behaviour. I also found that putting these questions down into a table format using headings for the different questions and columns for my answers really helped me get a clear picture. Here is an example.

Step one

Date & Time Situation/Event Current feeling Unmet emotional Needs

Step three

Coping Strategies Situations/Events

Step four & five: “Drug of Choice” table

Situations/Events in other areas of your life Payoff Cost