Tamara J Hicks Psy.D.

The Digital Self

Understanding and Creating Your Digital Self

Like it or not, we all have a digital self.

Posted Aug 23, 2010

Like it or not, we all have a digital self—a mask that we put on to engage the technological world.

Physician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicot once proposed a theory of self which posited there is a "true self" that is the instinctive core of our personality and must be nurtured and realized. This is in contrast to the "false self" that is created to protect the "true self" from insult and danger. The takeaway is, we all have a "true self" that is complex and fragile, but ultimately, is our essence. In an attempt to share that self with the world, we engage our decoy selves to manage the day-to-day anxieties and challenges that come before us.

This blog engages thought and discussion about our digital self. For the past two decades in the mental health field, we have seen countless individuals explore and navigate the many aspects of their self-identities. Put another way, the digital self has become a frequent visitor on the couch. We have treated patients who have become divorced over Facebook affairs, couples who met on Match.com and wound up happily married, adolescents who became suicidal due to cyber-bullying, single moms now with the flexibility to work at home, and the embarrassing consequences of "drexting" (aka drunk texting).  

In the last 15 years, we have been introduced to:

  • World Wide Web
  • Emailing
  • Chat rooms
  • Online shopping
  • Cell phones
  • Internet gambling
  • Internet pornography
  • MySpace
  • Facebook
  • Texting
  • Sexting
  • Tweeting
  • iPods
  • Search engines
  • Dating sites
  • Foursquare
  • Wii

Let's be honest here: Who hasn't struggled with their digital self-identity? All of this technology has come at us so fast and furious, that we haven't had the time to think about how our relationship with it shapes our very identity.

If we can begin to understand this slice of who we are, then we can shape our digital self into a self that is more closely aligned with our true self, which has a sense of integrity and connected wholeness that Winnicot would have said harks back to the early stage of development. If we are unable to take control in defining our digital self, then we become increasingly more dependent on this digital reality.

As I sit in a San Francisco café writing this blog, a mother and her preschool age boy are sitting next to me. The boy has made a sort of rocket out of his juice box. He says excitedly, "Look what I did with my juice box," not one, two or three ... but six times, each louder than the first. The mother is texting. She looks up at him on his sixth attempt of connecting with her and says, "Um, yes, we will leave in five minutes." He crushes his rocket.

In psychological terms, this lack of interaction is referred to as an empathic failure and will possibly have consequences. Children remain developmentally concrete for many years and cannot comprehend who their parent is communicating with or why. They just experience the disconnect and the fact that something they don't understand is coming in between their relationship with their parent.

How could this seemingly attentive and undoubtedly loving mother create better technologic boundaries to protect her relationship with her child? How could she better define her digital self in a way that is more congruent with her true self? How did this mother end up inadvertently prioritizing her relationship with technology (texting) over her son at that moment in time?

In such a short span of time, how is it that we have learned that when our phone buzzes with a message we MUST respond? In this blog, I am not suggesting that you should throw your phones and computers into the ocean, but rather to explore ways to develop a deeper level of understanding as to how your relationship with technology impacts your primary relationships, and how it is, as a result, defining you.