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Over the last decade, social media has changed the way that relationships, identities, and social networks operate.
Facebook, in particular, is now a complex social ecosystem with 1.55 billion active daily users who are able to express themselves, keep informed about the news, and communicate easily with friends all around the globe (Facebook, 2015).
“Each minute, 510 comments are posted, 293,000 statuses are updated, and 136,000 photos are uploaded” -Zephoria Digital Marketing, 2015
With these modern capabilities, individuals are now able to construct their identities on their personal profiles and are the primary agents in presenting themselves in a potentially provocative or untruthful way.
This inflation of one’s identity is a major concern of the social media phenomenon, particularly for teenage girls as they work to establish positive self-image and healthy social relationships as they enter into adulthood.
The Rise of The Selfie
The “selfie” is defined as an amateur photograph taken by oneself, usually at arms-length, and usually with a smartphone (Weiser, 2015). These photographs are self-constructed (with Photoshop filters), idealized images of the “perfect” way one wishes others to see them.
The Oxford dictionary even added the word ‘selfie’ into its lexicon in 2013 as ‘Word of the Year’ (Weiser, 2015).
The administered tools and strategies previously used by celebrities, magazine editors and advertising creatives (airbrushed photos, strategic poses and photo selection) are now available to ‘every man and his dog’ with a smartphone.
The use of this style of self-promotion has escalated, and in 2015 it was recorded that 238 million photos were hash-tagged (captioned): #selfie, and 126 million photos hashtagged: #me (Weiser, 2015).
What’s Wrong with Selfie Posting?
Posting “selfies” can potentially boost morale for individuals who are popular offline, a positive benefit of selfie culture. The research consistently demonstrates that females have a significantly higher likelihood than males to use online tools, such as the selfie, to manage and maintain their identities (Stephanone, Lackaft & Rosen, 2011; Sorokowska et al, 2016).
However, according to Barry et al. (2015), “the perfect selfie” can establish higher levels of insecurities, and damaging levels of self-consciousness.
These online self-promoting behaviors come with self-comparison and the seeking of interpersonal feedback, which can be highly damaging to an individual. The common quest in social interaction between young girls seems to be more beautiful, more popular and more successful than others.
Facebook has the ability to fuel low self-esteem through the comparison of oneself to others, based on how much feedback one get on their photos, via ‘likes’ and comments (Barry et al., 2015).
When an uploaded selfie is not acknowledged or has no positive feedback, it can have dangerous consequences on self-reported confidence and self-esteem (Barry et al., 2015).
A study conducted by Haferkamp and Kramer (2011) found that participants who look at the Facebook profile of an ‘attractive’ person have increased negative emotions and are more disheartened by their own personal images. ‘Attractive’ peers are quickly perceived as “unreachable superstars.” These comparisons are integrated into the human psyche, meaning that it is virtually impossible to avoid, without mindful monitoring of this habit (Haferkamp & Kramer, 2011).
Motivations Behind Online Self-Promotion
Researchers tend to be in agreement that selfie posting is related to the personality trait of narcissism (Barry et al., 2015; Weiser, 2015; Ziegler-Hill, Clark & Pickard, 2008; Stephanone, Lackft & Rosen, 2011). According to Weiser (2015) selfie posting is a byproduct of driven narcissism and the process is a gambit for the self-absorbed.
‘Vulnerable narcissism’ is when people attempt to cover up deeper feelings behind a façade. Individuals who fall under this bracket are sensitive, and they fear rejection and abandonment. They get their self-esteem ‘pick me up’ purely via the opinions of others, which links back to the danger of not receiving feedback on social media (Ziegler-Hill et al, 2008; Barry et al., 2015).
Contingencies of Self-Worth
The research of Ziegler-Hill et al. (2015), found that vulnerable narcissism has a significant positive association with the contingencies of self-worth.
Contingent self-worth has been defined as the obsessive preoccupation with self-worth and self-esteem which is dependent on reaching high standards of being ‘perfect’ in order to be worthy to the self and to be accepted and praised by others in various social domains (Ryan & Brown, 2003).
This concept is highly relevant to social media, as vulnerable narcissists seek the reassurance of their popularity with regards to their appearance and personality via positive feedback with ‘likes’ and comments.
Researchers have found that contingent self-esteem is also significantly related to the amount of time and effort invested in the pursuit self-esteem via self-promoting behaviors; performed in order to validate self-worth by an external opinion (Ziegler-Hill et al., 2015).
Social media has been said to meet two basic evolutionary social needs: the need to belong, and the need for self-presentation (Sorokowska et al, 2016). So perhaps it is a somewhat evolutionary norm that when you are a vulnerable narcissist you experience unconscious feelings of inadequacy and instability. However, even if this is a typical, primitive reaction in social science, it should still be exposed for its damaging effects to the soul of individuals susceptible to depression, along with reduced self-concept and a clearly defined identity (Neff, 2011).
Seeing Themselves in a Different Light: Self-Compassion vs Self-Esteem
“Western social science has been preoccupied with the pursuit for high self-esteem for years, however the Buddhist approaches developed in the east have a different view, and does not have a fixation on self-esteem, it isn’t even in their lexicon (Ryan & Brown, 2003).”
The two concepts of self-compassion and self-esteem are similar in the way that they can produce a positive sense of self (Neff, 2011). According to Neff (2011) the pursuit of positive and high self-esteem is counterproductive, not very sustainable in the long term, and is merely a ‘quick fix’.
According to the His Holiness The Dalai Lama, both high and low self-esteem are problematic, and self esteem is “perhaps the greatest emotional sickness known to humans” (Neff, 2011; Thompson & Waltz, 2007).
“ Self-esteem is like a measuring stick of who is ‘good’ and who is ‘bad’. In contrast, self-compassion refers to unconditional love for oneself, without judgment, and with a profound amount of acceptance for oneself and one’s current situations and feelings.”
A self-compassionate individual is one who accepts and views themselves as a valuable, enjoyable, and capable being with or without acceptance, positive feedback, or praise from others (Thompson & Waltz, 2007).
This concept does not exemplify tendencies of self-absorption or feelings of superiority, it actually promotes individuals to feel a sense of social equality in their community and encourages the idea that everyone is worthy (Neff, 2003).
Neff (2011) has highlighted that the presence of self-compassion in an individual’s philosophy of life de-activates the evolutionary threat system, and activates the self-soothing system. It creates a ripple effect of high life satisfaction, emotional intelligence, social connectedness, wisdom, initiative and optimism (Neff, 2011).
With self compassion there is a profound absence of self-criticism, depressive symptoms, fear of failure and perfectionism when one accepts themselves as who they are, and don’t criticize themselves for what they ought to be in comparison to others.
What is Mindfulness Based Self-Compassion?
Now significantly supported by literature in the west, self-compassion has three components;
Self-Kindness vs. Self-Judgment
Self- kindness refers to being caring and understanding towards ourselves with the absence of being self-critical, felling a sense of self-acceptance (Neff, 2011). People often self report that they would never be as critical as they are about themselves toward other people (Neff, 2003). A self-compassionate person takes on the ‘no one is perfect’ approach and perceived pitfalls are treated inwardly, gently, softly and in a supportive way – as if they were supporting their friend.
Feelings of Common Humanity vs. Isolation
Common humanity refers to the acknowledgement that many others feel the same way as you (perhaps inferior or unworthy), and that is okay and comforting in itself (Neff, 2011). Imperfection is a human condition, and acknowledging this idea promotes connection with others rather than the ‘this only happens to me’ approach. Seeing ourselves as a part of the bigger picture, a piece of the interconnected whole of humanity makes us feel valuable and important.
Mindfulness vs Over-Identification
Mindfulness involves being aware of the present moment, without judgment, rumination or commentary on what feelings the individual is experiencing (Neff, 2011). A benefit of this in regards to social media activity; is when an individual is less judgmental of themselves, they are less judgmental of others meaning there is no need for social comparison in order to get a ‘boost’ (Neff, 2003). It has been said that in order to be self-compassionate, people need to recognize their suffering, pause and acknowledge it (Neff, 2011).
“You can search throughout the entire universe for someone who is more deserving of your love and affection than you are yourself, and that person is not to be found anywhere. You, yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection” – Buddha
A Vision for the Future
It is my vision to see mindfulness based self-compassion programs implemented into high schools, where self-compassion is crucial for personal development and the birth of unique identities. If this were to happen, we could expect to see profound increases in self-worth and well being, and decreases in depression, anxiety and other mental health issues.
About the Author
Justine Curwen is currently a third-year psychology student at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. This piece is a version of a research proposal she wrote during the Positive Psychology course at Maastricht University in the Netherlands. This course fueled her passion for concepts such as self-compassion, positive mindsets, and mindfulness practice. She intends on pursuing these interests further in her postgraduate studies.
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