John Suler's The Psychology of Cyberspace
This article dated Sept 02 (v1.0)


A Comprehensive Online Program
for Self-study and Personal Growth

A version of this article was published as: Suler, J. (2005). eQuest: Case study of a comprehensive
online program for self-study and personal growth. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 8, 379-386.

As a result of the research I've been doing in cyberspace, I've become fascinated by all the different kinds of personal growth experiences that are possible on the internet. And so, about a year ago, an idea hit me. If I were to create a comprehensive program of online activities - activities designed to be therapeutic, to enhance personal growth - what would that program look like? I've been working on a preliminary version of that program and would like to briefly describe how it's turning out so far.

I call the program eQuest. I'm trying to design it to be both comprehensive and flexible. In a nutshell, it works like this: A person enters the program with some specific personal issue or question in mind, something they want to understand better about themselves or their lives. Maybe it involves a problem of some kind, something they want to change or resolve. It might have to do with divorce, drug use, friendships, stress, choosing a career, almost any issue will work. eQuest then guides them through a collection of online activities and exercises in order to help them explore and maybe resolve that issue.

eQuest could be used in 4 different ways. People could use it as a kind of self-help program in which they would undertake it by themselves. That might work just fine; however, I believe the program is more effective when someone works with the person, like an eQuest consultant. Or a psychotherapist could help clients use the program as a supplement to their therapy work together. Right now, as I'm developing eQuest, I supervise my students who use it as a kind of experiential or participant-observation research method.

The eQuest Philosophy

Every therapeutic system has an implicit or explicit ideology, a belief system or philosophy that clarifies what its adherents believe to be true, what's important regarding the issue at hand, how to learn and change. Here are the basic elements of the eQuest philosophy:

- Feel empowered to become a knowledgeable user of online resources
- Experiment with new behaviors and expressions of self while online
- Experiment with different modalities of online communication
- Integrate online resources and activities with each other
- Integrate online activities with in-person lifestyle
- Develop a healthy online lifestyle
- Explore a personal issue... Know thyself
Whatever the personal issue is that someone brings to the program, they can explore and perhaps resolve it by becoming a knowledgeable user of online resources, by empowering themselves in that respect. The philosophy is all about developing a lifestyle in cyberspace so you can work on that issue and also other ANY issue that may come up in your life. By experimenting with different types of online communication, by integrating online and offline living, we can learn a lot about ourselves. We can come to Know Thyself as Socrates suggested. And that's how eQuest works: on a specific level, the person uses online activities to address a specific personal issue; but on a broader level, the person comes to know thyself by exploring an online lifestyle. Those two levels work hand in hand.

In the sections that follow, I'll describe some of the basic components of how eQuest works. As I mentioned, it's a comprehensive program, so I'll just highlight a few key ideas about each of these components. In order to help this all hang together and make sense to you, I'll also briefly describe the experiences of one eQuest user, who I'll call Brian. Brian was 35 years old, married with three children, and had returned to college to get a masters degree. He also was in face-to-face psychotherapy when he started the eQuest program and was in the program for about three months.

Assessment and Goal Setting

The first stage in eQuest involves assessing the person's psychological condition and computer skills, in order to determine if they can benefit from the program, and also helping the person set goals. The goal, the personal issue that Brian brought to the program, was wanting to learn more about alcoholism. His wife was a longtime alcoholic and their marriage was headed for divorce. In addition to his in-person psychotherapy, he also attended in-person Al-Anon meetings. He wanted to explore online resources to see how they might supplement his understanding of how alcoholism was affecting his life and his family. He was a bright, mature, very responsible person who showed no signs of any significant psychopathology that might preclude him from using eQuest. He was somewhat new to cyberspace, but had the necessary e-mail and web browsing skills to make use of the program.

Using Online Information

As we all know, there's a great deal of information on the internet. eQuest guides people in learning how to search for information related to their issue, but more importantly, in learning how evaluate whether that information is good or bad in an objective sort of way - i.e., what are the credentials of the person who wrote that web article, is it a reputable organization that runs the web site, etc. - and also if it's good or bad in a subjective sort of way. Is it valid to you personally? How can you can make sense out of that information and apply it to your issue? Given all the information that an eQuest user might browse through, it's helpful to understand why a particular piece of information catches a person's eye. Brian looked over many web sites devoted to alcoholism, but one article in particular caught his attention - an article about confronting the alcoholic spouse. This issue was especially important to him.

Using Different Modalities

The next step is getting the person involved in online social and other interactive activities. There are lots of possibilities and eQuest encourages people to explore them. As I mentioned before, the eQuest philosophy is that we learn about ourselves by experimenting with different communication modalities, by trying out new ways of expressing ourselves using text, visuals, audio, synchronous and asynchronous communication, imaginary versus real environments, and varying degrees of invisibility and presence.

The problem is that it takes time, effort, sometimes money, maybe even some courage to experiment with new communication modalities. Which ones people choose and how much they're willing to experiment, may tell us something about the person. It might even be related to the issue that they bring to eQuest. Brian had once tried chat software, but it crashed his system. Because other family members used the computer, he didn't want to risk problems resulting from new software. In eQuest he preferred not to venture beyond email and web browsing.

Participating in Online Groups

Participating in online groups is an important social activity that eQuest encourages. There are thousands of groups out there, devoted to almost any psychological or social issue you can imagine. However, there is a learning curve in understanding the culture of online groups and knowing how to participate in them effectively. Some groups are something less than benign, even hurtful and pathological. So eQuest contains a set of guidelines about how to find and participate in groups related to your personal issue, and how to evaluate whether the group is helpful or not. Throughout the program there are suggested readings - many of them from my book The Psychology of Cyberspace - that describe the pros and cons of online living. Many of these articles pertain to online groups and relationships.

Brian joined an Al-anon email group where he felt much less inhibited as compared to his in-person Al-Anon group, which supports that idea of an "online disinhibition effect." He wasn't as worried about confrontation and being rejected. He also really enjoyed talking with people from around the world, which made him appreciate how many of the issues in dealing with an alcoholic spouse were universal, regardless of culture.

One-on-One Relationships

eQuest also encourages people to establish one-on-one relationships. It helps you find others with interests or experiences that are uniquely relevant to you, someone you might never be able to find in-person. It encourages you understand the transference reactions that tend to surface in the ambiguity of text relationships. Because people are bringing a specific personal issue to eQuest, it's good to connect with someone who has some knowledge of that issue. The relationship that forms may involve mentoring or peer help and support, in some cases evolving into a friendship.

Brian made contacts with a few people from his online Al-Anon groups, which were brief but supportive for him. He also began emailing two people that he knew from his in-person Al-Anon group. That turned out to be very powerful for him. Being able to touch base with them at any time during the week was a great comfort, especially at those times when he was upset with his spouse, or just felt isolated and alone.

Exercises in Online Living

In addition to the suggested readings that I mentioned, eQuest contains a collection of exercises to help people learn about online living. One of them is to write an email to an imaginary person using as many of what I call "creative keyboarding techniques." Here is an excerpt from the email that Brian composed:


The party went well, thankx for asking. Of course, I wish you were there :-( A lot of my {{{{friends}}}} and {{{{family}}}} came. *WOW* I was so happy. My favorite gift was a pillow from one of my sisters. It said, "A Brother is a Lifelong Friend" (Aaaah!) My 4 year old {{{{nephew}}}} got into trouble (uhoh) when it was time to leave and he was still hiding.

BTW, Remember the "chocolate pudding pie" dream I told you about (inside joke)? Well, the "chocolate pudding pie" showed up at my party!!! It was quite good ;-)

On a more serious note, we did not serve alcohol at this party. One reason is that some family members have a serious drinking problem. Another reason is that it helps to weaken the association between alcohol and having a good time, in the eyes of children (and adults) :-)


What's interesting about it is that Brian, in-person, can be rather quiet and reserved. But in this email we see him being very open and expressive (more evidence of the disinhibition effect). He's using emoticons, parenthetical self-disclosures, lots of virtual hugs. It speaks to a side of him that's not always visible in face-to-face contact.

Online Tests and Interactive Programs

Participating in online groups and one-on-one relationships are the social meat and potatoes of eQuest, but there are some good side dishes too. One of those involves encouraging people to try out the online personality tests, aptitude tests, interest inventories, and many other types of interactive programs that are available at sites like No matter what the issue a person brings to eQuest, there's almost always some test or program that's somehow related to it. eQuest advises people that most of these tests are not valid psychometric instruments, that the results should be taken with a big grain of salt. Nevertheless, it can be a valuable learning experience in Knowing Thyself to simply experiment with these tests and determine for oneself whether they're accurate or not. eQuest uses them as springboards for thinking about oneself and the personal issue being explored. It's also very valuable to see which particular tests or programs people choose, to understand why the person wanted to experiment with it. Brian was intrigued by a test that assessed emotional intelligence. He scored quite high, which he felt good about.

Freeform Browsing

Often when we're online we're hunting down specific information. That mental set tends to narrow our field of view. It prevents us from discovering other things things we didn't even know existed in cyberspace. The freeform browsing component of eQuest attempts to reverse that mental set, to get people to explore more freely. There are several types of freeform browsing exercises, but basically they all encourage the person to devote a few online sessions to just wandering around cyberspace with no specific agenda. They might use a random link generator that throws them onto a web page somewhere as a random starting point to begin their wandering. Freeform browsing then becomes a fascinating kind of projective test. How the person experiences the process of freeform browsing, as well as what the person discovers, are both revealing. Brian said that these exercises were hard for him. He realized just how goal-oriented he is. It was easier for him if he thought of wandering as his specific task to accomplish. During his browsing, two web sites in particular caught his eye. One was devoted to Dorothea Lange, a photographer who wanted to draw attention to the suffering of the the poor and the oppressed. He also was fascinated by a site about the history of dance in America. His attraction to these sites revealed important dimensions of his personality.

Creating a Personal Web Page

I think it's a valuable self-reflective exercise to create a personal web page. What do you think is important about you and your life? What do you want others to know about you? How do you think they'll react? eQuest contains some guidelines and exercises that help people construct a personal web page and to think about the creation of that page in a self-reflective, therapeutic way. This was a real eye-opening experience for Brian. He had never created anything like this where he was focusing on himself rather than other people. It helped him feel like an individual, and he liked that.

Putting It All Together: Integration

eQuest involves a variety of different activities and exercises. In order to prevent it from just becoming just a hodgepodge collection of things to do online, the program also emphasizes integration - integration on various levels. It encourages eQuest users to integrate their various online activities with each other. For example, talk to your online companions about your online groups. Show them your web page. If you've found something interesting on the web, discuss it with your online companions and groups. In your personal web page talk about your online lifestyle. I think it's important to overlap these various online activities with each other, to combine them, to encourage them to interact with, enhance, and balance each other.

As we sit there in our chairs and stare at the monitor, we tend to forget about our bodies. We tend to experience cyberspace as a disembodied activity, which I think is a mistake. Using such things as felt-sense exercises, eQuest encourages people to integrate bodily experience into understanding what they're doing online. It also helps people understand dreams about being online, as a way to integrate conscious and subconscious reactions.

Most importantly, eQuest encourages people to integrate online and offline experience. That's a potential problem for some people - separating, isolating online activities from offline living. It's one of the features of so-called internet addiction. Therefore, eQuest contains guidelines to help people bring their online and offline lives together. These seem like such simple things - like contacting online companions on the phone or in-person, or telling family and friends about one's online experiences - but I think these activities are essential in reality testing what we're doing online, in preventing harmful transference reactions, and discovering different dimensions of our personalities.

Brian composed an email to his online Al-anon group in which he revealed quite a bit about his situation with his wife. He felt good about how well he expressed himself. Later, when he read that same message to his in-person Al-Anon group, he cried. The emotion embedded in that emotion surprised him. Moving from one communication modality to another (including face-to-face meetings as a modality), combining modalities, integrating modalities, can reveal dimensions of the self that may not be obvious in one modality alone.

On another level of integration, Brian also found it very helpful when he talked about eQuest with his psychotherapist. I would recommend this strategy to any clinician. If you have clients with active online lifestyles, talk with them about it. You may gain a new perspective on their personalities.

The eQuest Consultant

A consultant comes in very handy for facilitating this integration process. Although people could pursue eQuest on their own, I think the program is much more effective when a consultant guides them through it, helps them sort out and interpret their experiences, helps them put it all together. All these exercises and online activities are like bits of a puzzle, pieces of a mosaic. The consultant can help the person compare, contrast, assemble those pieces to get a bigger picture of that person and the issue being explored. Across these different activities you can see patterns that you might not see in any one activity alone. In the bits and pieces I described of Brian's eQuest experience, you may have notices such interesting patterns.

New Therapeutic Models

There's a trend nowadays to think of the internet as a place where we can take individual psychotherapy and translate it into an online mode, like in chat therapy and email therapy. That's an important and effective strategy. I think also it's time that we start thinking about ways to shape the wide variety of growth-promoting experiences out there in cyberspace into therapeutic models that are different than those we're used to in the face-to-face world. It means clinicians may not play the same kind of central role in the transformative process as they have in the past. It may mean empowering the client more, but that's what I find intriguing about such programs as eQuest.

See also in The Psychology of Cyberspace:

The Online Disinhibition Effect
Bringing Online and Offline Living Together: The Integration Principle
The Final Showdown between In-person and Cyberspace Relationships
E-mail Communication and Relationships

Psychotherapy and clinical work in cyberspace

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