“The foundation of all mental illness is the avoidance of legitimate suffering.” — Carl Jung

 

Social Media is a significant part of life in modern America. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, and other social media platforms dominate the lives of individuals across the country. This wave of social media obsession has reached an all time high, with the surge occurring within the last ten years. There are many positive things to be said about some aspects of the prevalence of social media; One is that it allows individuals to remain informed on the goings on in the lives of friends and family. It also allows us to communicate instantly with others thousands of miles away and keep abreast with culture and world events. It is fast-paced, worldwide and convenient.

For all of the good aspects of social media, however, there are some major concerns, particularly regarding its connection to mental illness. While social media is a means to connect with others, it also can be a means to push us towards isolation. The perceived connection we experience through social media may instead be pushing us toward depression. In contrast to true connection, social media encourages us to act out of a “false self”, or a self that only engages the positive aspects of ourselves. This is due to the fact that connection through social media is often out of a place of filtered life, not out of true intimacy.

Through social media we can connect to other people’s lives without ever having to interact with them. We can make judgments on their new haircut, their engagement pictures, or their baby without ever facing the relational implications of our interactions and judgments.

We easily become disconnected and merely an observer of other’s lives. There is no risk and no reward of real intimacy, because there is no contact with an object that can actually fulfill our needs.

Social Media & False Self/Intimacy

Social media sucks us into a world of showing only our best selves, where we can filter, hashtag and document only the best parts of our lives. We can adjust our lives on these platforms until they look like the best possible version of ourselves.

This can lead us to a place where we may be afraid to ever let someone see us as our true, unfiltered selves. If we only let others interact with our filtered selves, we deny ourselves true intimacy. Intimacy happens when we can share our vulnerable selves – the parts of us that hurt or the parts of us that we feel are flawed or weak – and help us connect deeply with another person. These are the things that no one is going to share on their social media accounts.

Though it is very unlikely that social media is the sole cause of depression or other mental illnesses, it can be a tremendous contributing factor in pushing those with a disposition towards mental illness into severity. In many ways social media exacerbates what we already experience.

The individual struggling with depression will find themselves in a place of comparison and increased isolation. The person with narcissistic wounds will employ “selfies” or seek out “likes” to help fill their void of love and validation. Others may try to feel a sense of competence by tweeting their accomplishments or flaunting their friend list.

Social Media & Isolation/Avoidance

A great deal of mental illness is perpetuated by isolation and avoidance. This goes hand in hand with what is encouraged on social media.

Not only is the act of engaging in social media often a means of isolation itself (think of a couple at dinner, both on their phones), it also allows us a means to present only one part of ourselves. While social media in some ways is meant to connect us to others, it does so inadequately. The connection is artificial, as we are acting out of a filtered or “false” self.

Anxiety often stems from the repression of our emotional experience and from using our energy to hide parts of ourselves that we see unfit for relationships. When we swallow what we feel in daily life and try to protect others from our real selves, it leaks out in other ways; including symptoms of anxiety, depression, and other illnesses.

Social media encourages us to promote our perfected selves and swallow our negative parts. This leaves us holding onto our own pains instead of sharing them with others. Social media allows us to live in a world where we tailor our lives to only show one side of our existence. We can “block” people if they displease us and bully or hate others without ever seeing or feeling the impact of our words. We can have likes and follows from others without actually knowing or having ever met these people in person.

In this way, social media perpetuates our avoidance of feeling.

It distracts us. We can disappear into a world of virtual reality where we can engage with others without actually risking real connectedness, feeling, rejection, or pain. This is counterproductive, as our feelings do not go away by avoidance and distraction. These feelings live in our subconscious and play out in our relationships. The anxiety builds. We experience depression and anxiety that no one would ever know because we post only the best version of ourselves, furthering our isolation. Without engaging the other sides of our lives, we cannot experience the healing presence of love of our real selves.

Much of what is done on social media is the individual acting out of a need to be seen and be connected. We can “check-in” at locations, post our moods, and document the events of our lives, all to communicate something to our social network.

The problem is that this is diluted. We are screaming for someone to engage us, but we do it only halfway. If we are truly lonely, it is easier for us to just check in at location than it is to say, “I am lonely, and I need you”. It is a cyber-tease. It takes some of the risk out of engaging.

We can also tailor our pages on these social platforms so that we have only admirers or keep tabs on others to act as constant objects of shaming and/or comparison. Depression creeps in when we find ourselves caught in self-comparison with others and feel our sense of agency questioned.

When we get caught up in letting others see only our perfection, we can then feel that we should be ashamed of our darkness. Depression often tells us that we will never be able to catch up, that we will never be good enough. Social media can help fuel that impression that everyone else is succeeding at life while we struggle, because very few people post their most intimate pains or fears on social media.

Those with depression will find this folds into their fears. We can feel convinced that we are the only ones who struggle. We can isolate, perpetuating our feelings of loneliness, increasing our depression. Social media plays into this perfectly.

Fear of Missing Out

These resulting feelings of depression can flood into the times when we are in the presence of others. What’s also troubling is that even while we are participating in activities, many of us are still preoccupied with social media in some way, whether it may be documenting our own adventures or wondering how our friends may have reacted to a post or reply we put up earlier that day. We are constantly being sucked out of the present moment.

One of the techniques taught to clients to combat feelings of anxiety and depression is mindfulness, or being in the present moment. When we are constantly checking our social media accounts, we lose our mindfulness and we are not living in the present moment. Instead, we are living in a constant state of performance.

Conclusion

For ourselves and for our clients, we must encourage the risk of interacting with individuals outside of social media.

It is important to be aware of how an individual’s relationship with social media could be perpetuating their illness as well as to attempt to deeply understand how one’s relationship with social media plays into their specific symptomatology. It is particularly important to consider how social media may be contributing to the avoidance of emotional experiences and further perpetuating the cycle of isolation and depression.

 

 

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Elise Joy Middleton, PsyD, MACL

Elise Joy Middleton, PsyD, MACL

Elise Middleton is a recent PsyD graduate from Fuller Graduate School in Pasadena, California. She currently resides in San Francisco and specializes in working with children, youth and families. She will be completing her Post Doctoral Fellowship at the Infant/Parent Program at UCSF and moving on to becoming a licensed psychologist.
Elise Joy Middleton, PsyD, MACL