The Social Media Illusion
Social media is making everyone else’s lives look more perfect than reality, and it’s time to remember our shared humanity
Sometimes people tell me that they are inspired by how “together” I seem to have it. They say they envy my composure. They admire the way that after all the adversity I’ve written about, I seem to cruise through life with so much light and positivity.
The other day a friend asked me something along the lines of how, of the two of us, it was he that wound up the one battling with darkness. I guess it was a compliment — he meant to say I’d come a long way — but as he spoke I felt my imposter syndrome kick in. Had I really gotten it any more “together” than the last time we’d seen each other, seven years before? Spoiler alert: No. I don’t have my shit together. Not by a long shot.
We live in an increasingly filtered digital world where we see one another through snapshots of our lives; we show ourselves through carefully chosen snippets of content that we deep worthy of being seen. We see each other’s proudest moments and inspirational stories, the simple joys of day to day living, the carefully crafted essays of opinion and advocacy about the causes we believe in. We share the beauty in our lives. We share our insight. We share what what we hope will move one another. But nobody sees behind the curtain when we log out and turn off the screen.
When my friend expressed his impression that I had all my ducks in a row, I couldn’t help noticing that I’d felt similarly any time I stumbled across his social media postings. I envied the seemingly perfect life that was depicted on his profile page. Since we’d last spoken he had purchased a home with his long-term partner, he had achieved admirable success with his artistic pursuits, and he had a stable job with good pay and benefits. I, on the other hand, spent the past seven years on a rollercoaster of unresolved PTSD, had accordingly stumbled through one failed relationship after another, worked in a career field that had been obliterated by 2020, and was barely able to afford my rent and living necessities. What on earth about my life looked “together” and darkness-free?
The problem is, my friend and I were both comparing our lives behind the curtain to the hand-picked lives we shared on screen. We had forgotten to fill in the spaces between each Facebook status or Instagram photo; we had forgotten that behind all of the beautiful moments worth sharing, we were both vulnerable, broken humans.
There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with sharing the beauty we encounter in life through online platforms. I personally enjoy witnessing, from afar, the successes of my friends and colleagues as they walk the journey of life. I appreciate the insights, inspirations, and joys they share. Equally, there’s nothing wrong with keeping our personal struggles to ourselves — in fact, the public social forum is probably not the safest space in which to confide about our most intimate personal battles.
But when we take the online world as a holistic representation of one another’s lives, that’s where we get into the danger zone. When we perceive the perfect, “together” lives shown on social media to be comprehensive portraits of another human being — that’s when we start looking at ourselves and wondering where it is we went wrong. That’s where the shame sets in. We ask ourselves: how is it that everyone else has gotten it “together” over the last several years, and I’m still just as vulnerable and broken as I ever was?
To my dear friend who I reconnected with recently:
I appreciate your vote of confidence in me. But to answer your question, you are not the only one who ended up battling darkness. You are not alone in your darkness. You may not see me when I hit “post” on a blog, close my computer, and crumble onto the floor to battle the very demons I speak so passionately about overcoming. You may not see the sleepless nights my nightmares return to me and beg me to give up every step of recovery that I’ve worked so hard to achieve. You haven’t witnessed the nights where I’ve backtracked, hard and fast, the nights I have to work my way back up from rock bottom all over again. You may not know that every word of inspiration I share is only a small voice of wisdom that lives in me and tries to convince the much more concrete, more broken version of myself to believe what she’s saying.
Dear friend, you have seen the stories of my overcoming. The ones that I write to remind myself how to pick myself up again the next time I fall down. I share the beauty in my life because it has moved me and I hope it moves others. I share what wisdom I encounter because it has saved me from a dark night of the soul again and again, and I hope it helps others. But I am only human, and the truth is darkness lives in me just as much as did seven years ago — and you are not alone in your darkness.
We are not alone. We are in this fight together.