What is the internet age doing to our sense of personal boundaries – and how does it affect the nervous system?

Picture of a broken heart

Is the internet destroying our personal boundaries?

by Benjamin Fry

I came across this fascinating article in the Independent recently – Divorce in the internet age: It’s complicated – To move on after a relationship ends, you need to be able to forget. But how can you when the internet has such a long memory?

This article brings up the pressing issues of boundaries in personal relationships. In the digital era, we are confronted with a dizzyingly swiftly changing landscape in personal boundaries; privacy has evaporated from the concept it once held a hundred years ago. A thousand years ago, nothing much would change in a hundred years. A thousand minutes from now, things will be changing as fast as they ever have in the history of human society. What is this doing to our sense of personal boundaries and how does it affect the nervous system?

Relationships are built on the ability to connect from a place of separateness and health. Only when I am whole in isolation, can I truly bring myself to relating. But this ideal is almost never reached in the human condition, so we are encouraged to approximate. To do this, successfully, society creates norms. These become the boundaries of human experience within which we are encouraged to remain. So monogamy seems to be such an idea in most cultures; perhaps strengthening the family unit and discouraging the random coupling and decoupling which could destroy the fragile fabric of an early civilization. These external norms replace the need in ourselves to be perfectly self-regulating. If we follow the rules, we are encouraged to believe, then everything will turn out fine.

To evolve from there, and therefore in effect to choose our own path (such as divorce, in this case) we need to find a way into the deeper truth of our own boundaries. In trauma work we look at two layers of personal boundaries; one is internal and regulates what gets into and out of our deepest psychological and emotional core; and the other is external and governs the behaviour we allow and manifest. Each has a two way function; we let stuff in, and we let stuff out. It takes years in recovery to perfect these boundaries and to get them to a point of functioning healthily in the background, regulating our experience of ourselves and others.

The digital age can come crashing through these boundaries in a startling way. Boundaries need time and practice to develop, and new experiences, new ways in which to have them assaulted, are too much too fast too soon for our finely calibrated systems. We are stone age instruments in a fibre optic blizzard.

With trauma work, we always retreat to a baseline position of “slow down”. It usually is the opposite of what the dysregulated nervous system is wanting to do. So with digital communication, with email, with Facebook, with twitter, and especially in time of stress and crisis, like a divorce, a retreat to a pre-digital era is most likely to nourish our prehistoric pace of nervous activation and discharge.

Benjamin Fry works across a range of services and media using personal, professional and scientific expertise to help people to a baggage-free life. A published author, and a past columnist for The Times and Psychologies magazine, Benjamin is a social activist in mental health. He founded Get Stable in 2010 to get effective treatment paid for by the state and his great passion is to bring treatment, which works, to all levels of society and across all severities of conditions.

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