Meaningful You

Voices of contemporary psychoanalysis

Your Facebook Self

Reality and unreality as we self-style on social media

This blog curates the voices of the Division of Psychoanalysis (39) of the American Psychological Association. Shelley Galasso Bonanno, M.A., a practicing psychotherapist in the metropolitan Detroit area writes this post:

While the old adage, “A picture is worth a thousand words" gained favor nearly a century before the advent of social media sites, the saying was never more applicable than it is today, in the notion that our complex selves can somehow be miraculously conveyed with just a single still image posted to social media sites, such as Facebook.  Never mind that the fantasied perfect picture is impossible to achieve. Postings to social media sites generally portray who we would like others (and ourselves) to perceive us to be.  Because so often many of our “friends” rarely if ever come face to face with us or even converse with us verbally, we can craft an idealized image and present it to the world as complete reality.  We post ourselves, smiling and engaged, using only the best, most flattering photographs, crafting an idealized image and presenting it to the world as a complete reality.  

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The news feed we create is an idealized “global village” of sorts.  We post status updates to our Facebook “tribe” that promote us as we choose to present ourselves.  And more often than not, this feeds our ego, leaving us feeling validated and admired when we are acknowledged with click of the Facebook ‘Like’ button, giving us a “thumbs up” in response to our post.   Day after day, we update our status, seeking continued validation of the fantasy.  And given the absence of a ‘Dislike’ button, it seems easy to avoid potential rejection and emotional vulnerability.

I am reminded of the flip books of my childhood in which a series of pictures that varied only slightly from one page to the nextbrought the drawings to life when the pages were quickly turned.   These simple drawings created an illusion, appearing to collapse the separate images into an integrated and complete animation.   And so it may be with social media sites:   We create an illusion of ourselves through our postings, and others’ responses support our perception that these glimpses somehow represent our complex and cohesive psychological selves.…And, we ‘Like’ it.

In contrast, as we read others’ social media posts, we often compare ourselves and our lives to our friends’  apparent  accomplishments.  Are we good enough? Attractive enough? Active enough in our own lives?  Even while knowingly posting self-aggrandizing photos and news of ourselves, we may disregard the likelihood that others are doing the same and choose to presume that their lives in fact constitute the sum total of the few clicks they choose to share on Facebook.  Perhaps this was never more eloquently stated (in 140 words or less) than by a Tweet shared on Twitter:  “My theory is I can only be on FB when everything in my life is great or it will plunge me into a deep depression.”  It seems that our social media world, so often a useful form of communication, can become detrimental to our emotional health, not through others’ actions but by our own need to portray ourselves – and view others – in a glamorized light.

Recently, a colleague discussed the excessive use of social media sites by some patients, who compare their own apparently mundane existence to the seemingly exciting and resourceful lives of others as portrayed on Facebook.  The compulsive nature of such information seeking has been disadvantageous to these patients, serving to plummet their already low self-esteem into deeper depths.   While they know this, day after day they continue to seek out news feed postings again and again.   This all too common scenario is not a pleasure seeking behavior, but rather an exercise in supporting and reinforcing an already negative self-image.  And while psychoanalysis is one such place where the notion of an idealized transference is not uncommon,  psychoanalysis allows us a time and a place to explore and work through our idealized versions of not only our analysts, but perhaps ourselves as well. 

Do our Facebook relationships really differ from those whom we interact with outside of our virtual lives? Hopefully so.  Our day to day relationships offer us the unique opportunity to reveal many aspects of our multifaceted psychological selves.  While some pictures may indeed be worth a thousand words, a picture posted on a social media site is more apt to represent just one pixel of our intricate, psychological self-image.

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Shelley Galasso Bonanno, M.A. is a practicing psychotherapist in the metropolitan Detroit area with more than 25 years of clinical experience.  Her writings and poems have appeared in various professional psychological publications including The American Psychoanalyst and The Division Review.  You can follow her on Twitter @ ShelleyBonanno.     

Kristi Pikiewicz is managing editor of the American Psychological Association's Division of Psychotherapy DIVISION/Review.

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