I was 19 and in my first year at university when a fellow student asked if I’d join this new thing, ‘The Facebook’ (no really). He said that we could be friends on it and share some photos.
It was 2005 and it would have been hard to imagine what social media would look like and mean in our culture 14 years later. During my uni days we used Facebook to document drunken evenings and sunny days with friends; now when I think of Facebook I’m more likely to think of Cambridge Analytica and ‘fake news.’
Yet my natural instinct as a young student then was the same guiding principle that runs through all of the social behemoths - Facebook, Instagram and Twitter - that very human drive to connect.
Having said that, as an insecure 19-year-old, I also wanted to know that people liked me. That’s why I would carefully choose which photos to share with my friends and consequently relish in a hit of happiness when they commented (this being long before the days of the ‘like’ button. Simple times.)
Nowadays, the painstaking photo curation of Instagram takes this process to another level; each image carefully chosen, filtered, commented on with relevant hashtags and emojis. Primped and primed for public consumption, before the ritual checking for new likes or comments. The Insta user can spend huge amounts of time and effort ensuring that their photo looks just right for their chosen audience. The aim? To maximise your impressions, generally via likes. It’s addictive, and it speaks to a very primal part of many of us that craves the approval of others.
We are tribal creatures and wanting to feel part of the group is a powerful inner drive. But let’s think about the focus of social media. The emotional gain we get from an Instagram (or Facebook or Twitter) ‘like’ is the quick emotional hit of: Ah, I’ve got the thumbs up, I’m good enough, I’m okay. I’m in the group.
There is evidence that this hit can be addictive, leaving us seeking out those ‘likes’ again and again. I’m sure most of us are aware of the superficial nature of this hit as it’s happening, yet it hooks into a part of our brain that is primitive and powerful, so it’s a tough habit to break (as the social media companies know.)
And for me, in order to get to know our true selves we need to move beyond being liked. Because being authentic probably means that some (or many) people will not like us – we’re mostly just too complicated for that. Staying in a mindset where we constantly seek the approval of others may feel comfortable, but it means that we avoid some of the more complicated and perhaps difficult experiences that allow us to truly grow.
The great psychotherapist Neville Symington suggested that in order for us to reach emotional maturity, we should think about our ability to:
If we cannot bear criticism – if we retreat from it, deny it or fail to reflect on it – then we cannot build careers and truly intimate relationships. Similarly, if we cannot stand any confrontation then we cannot hold our own boundaries; we become slaves to the needs and whims of others. For Symington, being able to work with these two relational milestones is what will allow us to flourish, to move beyond functioning and into a life of greater love, joy, creativity and where we can withstand pain.
This is where an approval-seeking state of mind can be so problematic, preventing us from facing the aspects of ourselves that are complicated, and from meeting the complexities of others in an open way. Where gaining approval is the name of the game, authenticity goes out the window - one need only look at the Photoshopped perfection of some Instagram feeds to feel the truth of that. Is our addiction to the quick-hit emotional fix of a social media ‘like’ impacting on our abilities to build and maintain deeper, more complex relationships? Are we moving further away from an appreciation for what is real, messy and genuine in ourselves and others?
Really getting to know ourselves, including some of those aspects that are less likeable, is inevitably an awkward, difficult and even painful process. It’s entirely different from the flippant hit of the ‘like’ button on social media; quite the opposite. But it is only when we move beyond the easy, superficial likeability that we desperately seek in social media that we can start to really know our true, messy, complicated selves. And I think that therein lies a life more true and fulfilling than even the brightest Instagram feed can offer.
Written by Claire Lamont