October 31, 2016

Don’t Judge a Face by its Facebook.

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I tried to tell my parents, in several different ways, that I was falling apart, but I would later learn that they’d had trouble hearing it because they couldn’t see past my bright, shiny face(book).

I’m originally from the East coast, but only recently moved back. For the past three years I lived in Alaska. The Last Frontier was incredible in many ways. I hiked gorgeous mountains, flew over glaciers and kayaked through seas of icebergs. I picked berries in places where I didn’t see another soul for miles, and met many fascinating people, including a few who touched my heart deeply.

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Unfortunately, in my role as a mental health practitioner, I also routinely assessed people who had just tried to kill themselves. I had a few individuals threaten to kill me. I felt more isolated and alone than I‘d ever known was possible. I had people tell me, “I don’t want to know your name until you’ve been here for a year.” I routinely went for months without meaningful conversations or sunlight and ultimately, on the inside, sank into several deep, debilitating states of depression. Good, bad, or otherwise, I am a highly functioning person. So, from the outside, most never knew.

We live in a complex world. Very few, if any, of us are just one thing or in just one state of mind all the time. Compartmentalization seems to be a modern requirement for getting by. There are stresses about school or work that go into one box, feelings about friends (or lack of friends) go into another box. There are health issues, and family issues—on and on.

Then there’s the Facebook box. What do we show the (social media) world?

I pride myself on throwing a little bit of everything in there.

Discovered a sweet new jam? Pop that bad boy on my wall.

See a pretty tree? Snap a photo for all to see.

Have a really terrible, awful, no-good, very-bad day at work? I’ll share some of that too.

But the heavy stuff? Like, “I couldn’t stop crying in between fulfilling responsibilities today,” or “I don’t remember the last time I felt joy.” If there’s someone I trust available, I’ll tell them these things, but I’m certainly not posting them on Facebook.

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My parents said,”But Allison, we can tell so much about people by their online activity!”

Totally. We can probably tell what kind of music a person is into, who they’re dating, maybe even a few of the things about what they think or feel. Social media presence is rarely the whole story, though. For some people, Facebook is just a bookmark in their story. They’ve stopped posting anything real, feeling too much to let us see what’s actually going on. Or, like myself, when someone is really going through the thick of it, they might just post random, pleasant things to try and connect or try to feel better.

Is this dishonest, to withhold so much of our true selves online? Should social media accurately reflect what we really think and feel? I’m not so sure. If that were the case, it might be chaos (I’m thinking Ricky Gervais’ movie, The Invention of Lying.) and I’m not sure anyone would go online anymore. Sometimes I use Facebook to talk about real sh*t, like, “I hate my body today and want to throw my scale out the window.” I also adore it when my friends occasionally allow themselves to be vulnerable too. Usually though, I think most people want social media to be an escape, a tool to educate and entertain us.

We humans sure do crave connection, though, and often in this digital age we seek it online.

So how do we bridge this weird paradox of wanting to authentically connect online but also wanting to keep the presentation of ourselves light?

First of all: let us always keep in the back of our minds that there’s usually more underneath the surface. Let’s be curious about our loved ones. Let’s ask each other questions about our hopes, dreams, and fears. Social media is great and it’s hard to imagine today’s world without it, but we can’t let it replace conversation or an independent lens.

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A 10-minute conversation starting with “Hey, how have you been feeling lately?” could totally change the way one sees a person (not to mention how the other person might be positively affected). I had a few serious conversations like this with my dad and stepmom recently and it radically changed our relationship—I feel they now see me a lot more clearly. Don’t let these kinds of conversations be a rarity.

All too often, we fail people by assuming to know their state of affairs based on the limited portion of their life available on the web. Our loved ones are too precious for that. We’re also too precious for that.


Author: Allison Berkowitz

Images: courtesy of the author, Wikipedia

Editor: Ashleigh Hitchcock

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