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To Thine Own “Selfie” Be True

Selfies can be fun as long as we don't confuse them with reality.

Mindy Utay LCSW
Mindy Utay LCSW

Post-holiday selfies have arrived. In most, they are of happy people, cuddling couples and smiling families on vacation or in front of the Christmas tree.

Captions extol the virtues of family fun and holiday cheer. 

The reality: It’s not all fun and games at the holidays. A picture may speak a thousand words, but it often doesn’t tell the truth, or at best, exaggerates.

A patient recently told me about houseguests she entertained over Christmas. In fact, she’d been inspired to invite this couple for the holidays because they looked so interesting and happy in their social media posts.

A selfie went up on Instagram minutes after they’d left her house. The caption read “What a wonderful weekend, feeling happy to be celebrating the holiday with family and friends.” 

“It was one of the most uncomfortable weekends I’d ever had with a couple,” my patient told me. “He has been out of work for a year. His wife clearly resents it, and she let us all know in any number for ways, including some insulting comments that were squirm worthy. It was awful.”

This story stuck with me. The social media image was a repudiation of reality. The selfie was a visual sleight of hand, a version of themselves that can be found nowhere but on social media.

Before you take your next selfie, pause a moment to consider the word “self”—which we use often: self-reliant, selfish, self-motivated, self-destructive. But what exactly does “self” mean?

Put simply, the self is an idea. Humans can conceptualize themselves as an abstraction, something both integral to and separate from their actual being. Feeling one with yourself, experiencing yourself as an integrated person, is emotionally healthier than feeling disconnected from yourself. Therapists often talk about a “true self” that internalizes values from childhood but is also separately defined.

I’ve been wondering if we wind up objectifying ourselves on social media, making us feel “false” and disconnected from who we really are. It may be contributing to the spate of anxiety and depression in contemporary life. Never before have people been so connected by social media, but disconnected from their true selves.

People have loved to see images of themselves since the days of cave painting.

Today, we’ve become our own portrait artists through selfies—but the focus is less on the inner life through portraiture, and more on the external depiction of the self for approval or self-esteem.  Social media has become a virtual space for the marketing of an idealized self. One that might not really exist.  

Sometimes the object is our body. Other times it is our relationships, our spouses or even our children.

So, what’s wrong with posting images of a “perfect” body or a “perfect” relationship? Not much, if someone is grounded and has a strong sense of their true self. But if they do not, the image becomes confused with reality. The depression or disordered eating of the girl in the bikini must not be real because she looks so happy; the bitterness of a couple facing serious life challenges is denied and disappears in their selfie. Life as a performance, as marketing, may inspire jealous and insecurity—and it can make people feel just good enough not to deal with their problems. 

Social media can be fun and a great way of keeping up with friends, as long as it doesn’t substitute for reality. If it does, we live our lives with the motto, “I post, therefore, I am.”

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