The highlight reel, that quick overview of our lives that only shows the good stuff, is harmless right? I guess the answer to that depends on how we define harmless. If only sharing the highlight reel of our lives means we risk never being truly known, that we risk disconnection from others and an increased sense of loneliness and isolation, then suddenly the highlight reel seems less harmless and more harmful.
A couple of months after my sister died I decided that I wanted to lose weight. Not because I needed to but because grief has a funny way of messing with your mind. When you feel like life has taken away your control you can’t help but search for ways to get some of it back. I realised that while I couldn’t control the fact that she had died, I could control how much food I ate and that if I could do that, if I could lose weight and become smaller, then I could fit in to her clothes and in some way it would be like she was still here. I never shared that with anyone, I certainly never shared it on social media.
When I moved to England almost five years ago I spent the first few months desperately homesick and crying down Skype to my parents back in New Zealand. I’d thought it would be a good idea to go traveling around the UK when I first arrived but the constant movement every few days from one location to the next without having first settled into a job and established a friendship group made me feel isolated and lonely. That’s not what I put on social media though. My Facebook community, seeing all the scenic shots and upbeat messages, no doubt thought I was having a wonderful time.
Then there was last year. I’m not sure how many times I cried in 2018 but I know that it was a lot. I missed my sister and I felt like I just didn’t know who I was anymore. I spent a lot of time feeling like I was failing, like I wasn’t good enough, that I couldn’t get things right, that I didn’t know which direction to head in or what my purpose was. Guess where I didn’t broadcast that? On social media.
Please don’t think I’m sharing this because I want to elicit empathy from you, I promise you that is not what this is about. The reason I’m telling you all of this is because we all too often keep to ourselves the struggles we’re facing. Most of us present a one-sided view of our lives on social media. We post photo’s of our stunning holidays, our families, our relationships, the social gatherings we’ve been to, the smiles and the laughter, the highlight reel of our life. That’s not to say we don’t post serious things but they’re normally posts we’ve shared from elsewhere that draw attention to particular issues in society, very rarely are they intimately vulnerable all-access behind the highlight reel passes to the challenges we’re facing in life.
Gone are the days where you snapped a photo and hoped that when you went to get it developed it had turned out okay. Back then your biggest concern was whether you’d accidentally put your finger over the lens or whether the fact that it was blowing a gale that day would mean that you hadn’t held the camera steady enough to get a non-blurry image. Back then you couldn’t look at the photo immediately after you’d taken it to see if your hair looked okay or whether the photographer had captured you at your best angle so that your nose didn’t look too sharp. No, you got one chance and when you got the photo back it was either a keeper or one that you popped away with a shudder in the back of a cupboard hoping it would never again see the light of day.
These days it’s a whole different story. You can literally run the battery of your iPhone down trying to get the perfect selfie and after several takes at all different angles you can then magically run it through a filter that will even out your skin tone, erase your spots, whiten your teeth, and in the case of Snapchat give you doe-like eyes, bunny ears, and face glitter. We can literally erase the flaws and imperfections we think we have and in doing so we become the image we want the world to see.
We don’t just mask and pretty up the outside though, we apply this same strategy to the inside, ensuring we project the vision of our lives that we think the world wants to see.
I remember the day after my sister died going to the supermarket to buy milk. The girl that served me asked me how I was and I smiled and said ‘I’m fine thanks, how are you?’ We do this all the time. Been made redundant? I’m fine thanks. Your partner ends your relationship or your spouse tells you they want a divorce? I’m fine thanks. Failed an important school exam? I’m fine thanks. Had a massive argument with your best friend? I’m fine thanks. You had to have your beloved pet put down? I’m fine thanks.
There are a number of questions that hurtle through our brain at lightening speed when someone asks us if we’re fine. This process is so quick that most of the time we’re entirely unaware that it’s taking place but it greatly impacts on whether we choose to give an honest or dishonest answer. I’ve concluded that while there are lots of variations on the below, there tends to be six types of questions that we ask ourselves to suss out whether or not we’re going to be real with someone:
If we make the split decision that we think we’re being asked how we are out of politeness or that based on past experience we think this person will judge us, make us feel worse, or is untrustworthy then they’re likely to get an ‘I’m fine thanks’ and if probed for more information we will likely give them a smile and the watered down, glossed over, highlight reel version of our life.
We do it in person and we do it on social media. Instead of saying ‘you know what? Life feels pretty tough right now’ or ‘I’m feeling really lonely and it’s a struggle to get through the day’ we post photo’s with our feet in the sand and a cocktail in hand accompanied by hashtags or messages designed to convey to others how wonderful our lives are. Please don’t get me wrong, there is NOTHING wrong with posting the good times but we desperately need to create a more balanced version of reality, one in which we also represent what’s going on behind the highlight reel.
I believe we all crave deep, meaningful, genuine relationships with other people but I don’t believe this can be achieved unless we show up to those relationships with vulnerability and honesty. The flip side of that coin is that we cannot expect people to show up with vulnerability and honesty if we do not create a safe space for them to share their struggles. Life can be extremely difficult and painful, made even more so by the feeling that we cannot speak openly with others about the challenges we’re facing for fear that in sharing our story we will be met with rejection or ridicule or that our story will in some way be downplayed or diminished.
I’m not saying we should all go out and start baring our souls to the poor strangers working in the customer service world or that we should share our struggles with those who don’t actually deserve to hear our stories but I do believe that if we only give people the version of our lives we think they want to see or hear then we are doing our relationships a huge disservice. How can we ever be known if we don’t allow ourselves to be seen? How can we establish and maintain deep connections with others if we never move beyond the surface?
We’re more connected and yet more lonely than ever before. Last year I ran a communication skills session with a group of 16–18 year-olds who shared with me the pressure they feel to present a picture perfect image of their lives to the world. They revealed that the pressure is so intense that if they post something on social media that doesn’t get a certain amount of likes within 10 minutes they take it down because they fear that what they’ve posted wasn’t acceptable within their peer group. They went on to say that even though they had hundreds of friends on social media they felt lonely much of the time.
It’s time we stepped out from behind the highlight reel and started connecting with people in real and meaningful ways. That starts with sharing who we are, how we feel and what we’re experiencing, the triumphs AND the challenges, the sunshine AND the rain. It means not only being honest and vulnerable with other people but also ensuring that we create a safe space for them to do the same. It means turning towards each other rather than away from each other.
Finally, life beyond the highlight reel is about understanding that we all struggle with the same themes and emotions, we all want to feel a sense of connection and belonging, and we all want people in our lives who are courageous enough to huddle with us under an umbrella when it’s raining until the sun shines again.