Hiding Behind Technology to be Mean

Typing-ComputerHave you ever heard anyone use the phrase “hiding behind your computer?” It’s something that’s become increasingly common in the world of technology. People somehow feel safer and stronger to be mean, breakup, or communicate other negative emotions to others when they do it through email, text, IM, etc.

Why is this easier? It may not be the answer you think.

The obvious answer is that it’s less threatening to be mean — or disappointing in other ways — to a person when not face-to-face, or voice-to-voice over the phone. Some will say that they don’t want to hurt someone else’s feelings, or face the consequences of irritating or disappointing them — such as seeing their facial expression change, or risk being yelled at, or some other notable and visible reaction.

However, the real reason people hide behind their technology isn’t as easy for people to acknowledge. This is because people who hide behind technology to be mean or hurtful to others really don’t actually care about hurting others’ feelings as much as they want to believe — otherwise they wouldn’t be doing it at all. What people really fear is seeing the reflection of themselves, and facing the shame of their actions. 

When people are hurtful to others, there are common reactions that reflect the treatment someone is receiving. For example, if you call someone a name, chances are they will become angry or hurt, and this will probably show, whether it’s by facial expression or some other form of outward reaction.

These forms of communication inform us of the nature of our behaviors towards someone. When we act out at somebody, our choice of behaviors is reflected off of the other person, and we are confronted with seeing ourselves and the damage that we have the ability to do. This often can lead to shame once our behavior is reflected back. When there’s a medium involved, we don’t have to face the reflections of our words. But if we face the other person, we can no longer be in denial of our mean or sadistic sides, or other parts of ourselves that we like to pretend don’t exist.

Essentially, when we hide behind technology, we fool ourselves into remaining in denial about the less acceptable, and more harmful sides of ourselves (less acceptable socially and also to ourselves). Even though we may be aware we are outwardly expressing negativity when using technology, it’s still possible to remain in denial and free of shame when there isn’t a person there to reflect it back to us.

This is why people generally tend to communicate anger and other negative feelings through email, text, and IM. It’s not that the fear is hurting the other, as much as it’s having to face the fact that parts of us exist that can, and at times want to cause pain to others.

What Do We Do About This?

First of all, angry messaging needs to be differentiated from emotional writing. Some people use emotional writing to help themselves process and externalize thoughts and emotions — which is a good technique. Anger towards others can be very common in journaling and other expressive writing techniques. However, the difference here is these writings are not then sent to the others to read. They are only for the writer. The problem is making the choice to use technology to act out these feelings on another person.

There are several ways to handle this issue. But the overarching idea is to break down barriers. A good starting place is to allow yourself to break the denial of the parts of yourself you’re less accepting of — especially anger, aggression, and hostility. The denial of these types of emotions and self states is what leads to passive-aggressive, and eventually hostile and aggressive behaviors. (People who are passive-aggressive attempt to deny their aggression and anger). Learning about these parts of ourselves is best done with the help of a therapist (also a safer environment to get to know these parts of ourselves). The idea isn’t to act out on these emotions, as much as it’s to learn where they come from, how the manifest, when they are triggered, and what to do with them.

Also, it’s important to understand that if you’re going to say something through a technological medium, be prepared to be misinterpreted and misunderstood. When saying things through written messages, our words rarely come across as we hear them when we’re typing. While typing, we hear the tone and intent of our words. But when the message is received on the other side, the other person only receives the words. The words are read with the other person’s own projections, which is rarely as accurate to the intended meaning of a message as hoped. It’s amazing how many different ways a single phrase can be perceived, let alone a whole message.

It may not be easy to communicate difficult and negative emotions in person, but communicating through technology as a means of safety is only an illusion. People still see you, you just may not have to see yourself. In the end, understanding ourselves, and learning to communicate honestly and directly can only improve the quality of our relationships.

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