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Picture this: you’re down in the dumps and, against your best judgement, you log onto Facebook or Instagram.
You see a post of a friend’s latest dazzling accomplishment and you want to feel happy for him or her (and generally you do), but on this day, you sink a little lower due to comparing their life to yours—then you feel even worse for not genuinely “liking” their success.
I know I am not saying anything novel or profound here, but I think we all know the feeling and yet we don’t talk about it.
I rarely peruse social media these days, and not because I don’t enjoy seeing other people’s posts (I often do—especially photos of little people and fur babies), but because, if I’m honest (the point of this essay), a gander on it has left me feeling “less than” or irritated about something I should not be wasting my time on, more often than it has left me feeling peaceful or inspired.
There are absolutely exceptions to this, and I do believe social media has redeeming qualities, like keeping in touch with my favorite cousin in Greece or virtually meeting my family in Argentina; and it goes without saying that it is helpful for getting a message or offering out there, but like any dysfunctional relationship, there is a point when one needs to call it quits.
This essay, however, isn’t about denouncing social media (that’s boring), although I do highly recommend spending less time on it for your overall well-being; it’s about genuine expression and connection versus pretense and isolation.
I think all we human beings really want is connection.
When you communicate with another person in a genuine way—even a few words to a stranger—it’s uplifting and can even be healing.
Words also have the opposite effect: “How are you?” “Oh, great. Just peachy” you say, when, really, you want to crawl under a blanket and cry. It’s this schism between self-expression and emotions that, I think, leads to deep unhappiness, depression even.
Recently, an acquaintance, who I hadn’t seen in a long time, asked me, in a small talk sort of way, how I was twice in the span of several minutes. I am not, let’s say, doing great! in my life story, and I think she knew that and was probably trying to make polite conversation, or didn’t know exactly what to say.
In any case, I heard my voice rise a few octaves as I answered, for the second time, that I was “Good!” and then, out of habit, shot back, “How are you?” in my too high voice, even though I had already asked her on our first go-around. It felt like the conversation came to a screeching halt after that. A battle of the how are you’s? (I’m conjuring up Seinfeld here).
Let me add that I understand “how are you” is unavoidable and I am, generally, a dutiful “how are you-er,” especially when I feel it is an opening to more meaningful conversation, or if I am in a situation (like work) that requires it, but in the aforementioned incident, the tone and resonance around her question felt phony or even a touch judgmental, rather than heartfelt, and that’s what irritated me.
Pretense is the opposite of vulnerability and true connection. Most of us have learned that being vulnerable, or unguarded, isn’t a safe way to be in the world and for good reason, but I think we can relearn how to be vulnerable while having boundaries that keep us safe. When I pretend, I disconnect from myself, my core or essence, and this is, interestingly, a definition of trauma. In this state, I can’t connect with my own feelings let alone anyone else’s.
In a Forbes interview with Brené Brown, called “How Vulnerability Can Make Our Lives Better,” Dan Schawbel asks Brown about “the obstacles in embracing [her] own vulnerability.” She talks about her upbringing and how the “grit part of that upbringing” did indeed serve her, but that she needed to eventually learn how to be vulnerable if her life was going to have meaning. She states, “My inability to lean into the discomfort of vulnerability limited the fullness of those important experiences that are wrought with uncertainty: Love, belonging, trust, joy, and creativity to name a few. Learning how to be vulnerable has been a street fight for me, but it’s been worth it.”
I wrote an essay several years ago, when Throwback Thursday was all the rage, called “Truth-day Tuesday.” I proposed a day of sharing on social media what’s really happening in our lives, e.g., I just had a hideous argument with my mother/spouse/best friend, or I have declared bankruptcy. Then I joked that we probably didn’t want to unload our dirty laundry on Facebook and that I didn’t mean to sound like my old friend, Debbie Downer.
Fine line, right? But you catch my drift.
I reflected that it’s natural to want to share the bright moments in our lives and the things we are proud of, like when the flower you plant in your garden blooms, or you get dressed up before a party and want to admire yourself, especially when sweatpants have been the go-to for the past year and a half.
But (enter Debbie Downer)…as we all know, the flower will soon die, you will get food on your blouse or have to unbutton your pants because you ate too much at the party (maybe that’s just me). The point is: the images we capture, and parade, are beautiful and fleeting—it is the mundane or day-to-day details (e.g., digging in the soil), rather than the rewards, that make up most of our lives.
The act of holding up an image of everything “in bloom” all the time is not only untrue, but it can create a feeling of competition and hence isolation, which is the opposite of the original (or supposed) purpose of social media: to connect.
In my family of origin, the message I received from a young age was that it was more important to pretend all was good and fine than to deal with the situation at hand or, at least, speak honestly about it. To be fair, I don’t think anyone wants to announce their dysfunction or highlight their failures (although maybe we should! More on this in my EJ essay called, “On Rejection—& Transforming our Deeply Rooted Wounds.“), and it goes without saying that my parents’ own upbringings led to certain defense mechanisms…but, as a result, my feelings got brushed under the rug along with all the dust bunnies (well, not really; my mom cleaned a lot). Eventually, feelings and emotions were intermingled in my mind with something dirty or not fit to be seen/heard.
I learned to swallow my emotions and ignore my intuition. I didn’t dare communicate what I felt or thought to anyone, maybe not even to myself—until, that is, it came back to haunt me in the form of regret, sadness, anger, or dwelling.
There was an upside to all of this: the negativity I felt led me to the path of eastern philosophy, self-introspection, and eventually yoga/mindful body movement and breathwork.
Connection is the basis of 12-step programs and why these programs can be healing. The magic of these programs, I think, is in the simple act of sharing what is real for us in the moment and having others listen, truly listen, with no agenda (there is no cross-talking or advice allowed).
When we share thoughts and feelings honestly and are received by others (the act of listening), we feel less isolated because we don’t have to bear the burden, alone, of emotions and “stuff” that is overwhelming and painful.
When we hear other people’s stories with similar threads and themes, we realize we are not alone.
Sharing only the good moments, and hiding the difficult ones, creates barriers to connection. It makes me think of those holiday brag letters that lists all the author’s accomplishments—as if the year didn’t also have hardship.
When I was in my 20s and a bit more snarky, I wrote “The Anti-brag Holiday Letter” after receiving a particularly brag-y brag letter. I didn’t have the “you know what” to send it out, nor would I have really wanted to (that fine line), but writing it was cathartic: a little gallows humor can do the heart good.
When I started writing my memoir and needed to get things off my chest, I must have depressed and/or horrified my first readers and mentors, so I do think there needs to be a balance in terms of unloading our “stuff” and sharing what feels authentic and honest. I think we can share about hardships in a way that helps to connect (rather than overwhelm) people.
So, the flower in bloom is something I want to share (I love flowers, and as Eckhart Tolle imparts in his teachings, they are a portal to the present moment), however, my point is that as a culture, we have gone out of balance in terms of focusing on manifestation and success, at the expense of “being,” or inner experiences and processes. Social media is simply a reflection of that.
In the essay I wrote several years ago (“Truth-day Tuesday”), I suggested that instead of those perfect images, we dedicate a day to posting a more realistic depiction of ourselves and lives, like a grumpy, pre-coffee shot or the cat poop that missed the litter (okay, maybe not that).
We all know that life sometimes feels bleak or that we feel bleak; that is nothing to be ashamed of. If we share about our failures and missteps (as well as the good times), we can connect more genuinely with someone who is feeling the same way; and the beautiful thing about this is, like magic, your glum mood shifts to a light one.
So, let’s break the illusion together one Tuesday at a time. Truth-day Tuesday, here we come—(or will this be TMI?).