On the radio this week I heard about young Instagram star Essena O’Neill who quit social media because, though her stream would suggest she was living a dream, she was, in fact, miserable. She shares candidly how the “life” she showed the world was created through painstaking effort and sponsorship and reveals that only more followers made her feel any better. In her YouTube farewell, she entreats everyone to live life in the real world, not on a screen; her pain is palpable.
And her pain is familiar. It’s pain that shows up not only in social media but also in social circles. It shows up on teams and on Twitter, on home pages and at home.
It’s the pain of showing up as someone other than yourself.
How many of us show up at work in a way that is expected rather than the way we are?
How many of us are being crushed by relationships built on an image rather than on the truth?
How many of us are putting on a performance every single day?
I’ve done it. I have hidden my sensitivity so I wouldn’t be seen as incapable or, worse, spoiled. I have tamped down my enthusiasm so as not be disruptive. I have swallowed my questions so as not to be disrespectful. I’ve rationed my ideas so I wouldn’t take over. I’ve hidden my needs so I wouldn’t be demanding.
The more of me I hid, the more I was weighed down by what I wasn’t expressing, the more I wanted to fight or give up, the more I woke up with my stomach churning, the more unfathomable tears I cried.
A disconnect between our truth and our lives hurts.
When we live our lives as avatars rather than as people, the space between who we are and who we seem to be surrounds us with emptiness, an emptiness that fills with self-doubt, tears, pain, rage and numbness. The pain increases the more we build our life on what is not not true. Playing a perfect role reinforces to our hearts that there is something wrong with us, something about us that needs to be hidden away.
Because social media is still relatively new, it gives us a fresh context and a powerful opportunity to see this schism. It is a message for all of us, not just social media stars, to wake up to where we are suffering a separation from our souls.
It is dangerous when we only allow people to see a perfectly constructed self that is disconnected from the truth, the heart, the raw sinew of our souls.
That’s easy to forget when that false self starts raking in rewards. We give people what they want and expect and we are showered with likes and shares, praise and promotions and for a moment we feel loved. We’re thrilled that we have been received so fully and powerfully until we realize we haven’t been received at all because what we have shared is not our self. We then shake in our boots in fear that someone will discover that it’s just us behind the mask. We create this image to experience a sense of safety and acceptance and ultimately we find it’s a cage.
Here’s the rub: it’s also true that if we share the raw sinew of our souls there is danger too.
There’s a reason that we fabricate this false self and it isn’t just for riches and YouTube followers. It’s vulnerable to be who we are. We risk being rejected. We risk being criticized and ridiculed. We risk being adored and having demands placed on us. We risk having the haters come to call. We risk having no one coming to call at all.
When we offer the world an avatar instead of ourselves it’s like we’re trying to rig the game. We’re trying to take all the gamble out of playing this thing called life. We figure that of course everyone is going to like us. Look at our paint-covered hands, our darling outfit and our winning smile. Look at our shining kitchen, our successful business, our beautiful blog. No one will see outside the frame. No one will see our doubt, our fear, our mess, our oddness. They’ll see us as beautiful, magnificent and when they do, we will too – and that’s what we’re aching for.
We all want to experience our magnificence. We all want to be loved. We all want to find a community where we feel at home.
Life is a dance of individuality and intimacy.
If the path lies anywhere it lies somewhere between the extremes of hiding and raw transmission in that sweet spot where you feel authentic and alive and are able to meaningfully connect with others. It’s a dance, a dance in which, no doubt, we will make mistakes. Some days we will wake up with what Brené Brown calls a vulnerability hangover. Other days we will seethe with what we should have said or done or been.
This is what it means to be human, achingly, fallibly, bravely human. Have compassion for everyone on the dance floor.