Elena Bezzubova

The Search for Self

Digital Depersonalization

Losing self between reality and cyberspace.

Posted Jan 26, 2018

Courtesy of Layers Players
Source: Courtesy of Layers Players

We become digital creatures, inhabitants of the new cyber world. At the same time we remain creatures of the old material world. Our selves can get lost in between these two worlds, entangled in digital nets on the margin of the real and the virtual.   

The first morning wakeful move, with eyes still closed, is not the touch of a partner, not even a dog, but a digital pet—smartphone, iPad, laptop or VR-device. A click on the iPhone's alarm, like a symbolic “good morning, world!”, becomes a greeting from the cyber-world and to the cyber world, the awakening of the cyber-self with her virtual pals and pets: friends from digital networks and VR-chats, admirers from online dating, co-gamers and virtual reality explorers. The old material world of a car that badly needs repairs, the sudden smell of rain and a provocative look of someone cool in the elevator, is also there. Such simultaneous habitation in two worlds—real and cyber—blurs reality and virtuality, confusing real self and virtual self. Dissociation between the factual “I” in the bathroom’s mirror and the virtually-constructed “I” in Instagram can cause the disturbing sense of blurred identity or unreality. “Feeling of self gets elusive.” “ I cannot feel myself.” “I feel unreal.” Ambiguity between the real self that performs in the real world and the virtual self that acts in the cyber world can lead to feeling unreal. Such digitally related experiences of unreality stand intrinsically close to depersonalization and, I think, might be outlined as digital depersonalization.

This is digital depersonalization as described by Paul, a young dreamy and sharp sales assistant: “Chatting by phone with my mom about the movie I saw yesterday with my girlfriend, I am pouring my morning coffee by my right hand while checking my phone by my left hand. I feel as if assuming different roles on different sites, like one “I”—strong and ironic—jokes on Whatsapp, another “I”—provocative and cool - flirts on dating sites and the third—committed and efficient—crafts a new profile on job sites. But also, of course, there is “I”—homey and somewhat needy—talking to my mom and sipping coffee. But where is my inner “I”—shy and anxious? My “I” switches as I switch between the sites, apps, and reality. But all these “I”s are just cyber fictions. I feel unreal.”

On first glance Paul’s experiences look similar to situational role-playing: a boss-pleasing manager turns into a tyrant with his subordinates; a strict dry mother becomes provocative and frisky at a girls-night-out party. However, the digital content essentially challenges this role-playing. Inside the cyber-world, there is no check with reality, not through the touch of the literally tangible material objects, not through the metaphorically tangible real relationship with real people. This digital dissociation with reality implies elements of depersonalization.

“I” of Facebook or Match.com is an image that represents not a particular person as she is, but this person’s hopes, wishes, fantasies or intentions. This image is not necessarily the one that is seen by this person’s friends or enemies. The digital image of this particular person communicates with digital images—wish fulfillment and fantasies—of other people. If they meet in real life—they begin a many-layers-game of dissecting their digital appearances. If they maintain an “all digital” continuum—they remain elusive, unreal. Relationships between factual self and virtual appearance are frighteningly complex. They could help us understand hidden parts of our selves. But also these relationships could destroy the balance of the internal structure of self and cause significant disorders.

A story of bright and charming Anne shows both helpful and disturbing potentials of digital depersonalization. As an A+ high school freshman, Anne was on the verge of dropping out. Embarrassed by the ugly divorce of her parents, their drinking, and troubled behavior, she suffered from being a “pariah,” despised by peers. “Facebook saved me, providing me with the freedom to forget the self that I wanted to forget and craft the self that I wanted to be and that would be liked by others. For the first time in my life, I had friends and liked my life.” Anne’s virtual circles did not include her school-friends. Her virtual life blossomed in a virtual world of virtual people she never met in real life. This successful, as she called it, “cyber-life of cyber-self” made Anne feel really good, helping her through high school and a prestigious college where she started to combine digital and real relationships. Well-known in her intellectual digital communities, she worked on a dissertation about games and VR technology. Reflective and observant, Anne “discovered painful emptiness and an inner void inside myself. I felt unreal, as if a digital fiction of flickering pixels”.  She used therapy to understand that her virtual life was not only building a new successful self, but also “running away from my real wounded self and my real destructive world.” Anne realized that the “digital refuge” helped her to overcome severe trauma and now was the time to integrate traumatic “real” and successful “virtual” aspects of her complex true self.

These two stories, each in its own way, show the distinctive affinity between depersonalization and cyber-phenomena. Both are distortions of reality, experiences of what is not factual. And both are characterized by the dissociation between objective facts and subjective feelings. Cyber-phenomena and depersonalization are both knowingly merely images given in effect, not in fact. Both have an “as if” quality—they are experienced as if they exist, but at the same time the person who experiences them knows that they do not exist in fact, but given only in effect. In case of virtual reality, a person feels as if it is real, while the person clearly knows that it is imagery, and a person often can create or modulate this imagery, as she wants. But at some point, this imagery can take over a person making her “look into the abyss without any boundary between real and imaginary.” In the case of depersonalization, a person feels as if she is unreal, while the person clearly knows that she is real. Though, at some point, this “imaginary” unreality can take over a person making her feel the “horror of self-disappearance.”

We live wandering between the old material reality of facts and things and the new virtual reality of images, pixels, and effects. Perhaps it is more accurate to accept that the very notion of reality has been changed and the world we live in is an amalgam of both objective facts and tangible things on the one hand and subjective effects and perceived images on the other hand. The complex process of personalization and depersonalization appears to be an important part of understanding ourselves in this new world.

About the Author

Elena Bezzubova, Ph.D., Elena Bezzubova, Ph.D. maintains a private practice as a psychoanalyst in Newport Beach and teaches at the New Center for Psychoanalysis in Los Angeles.

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