I have had a lot of thoughts lately on the negative effect of social media on our self esteem. Like it or not, things that should not mean much in the grand scheme of things like Facebook and Twitter do have a pivotal effect on the way we think about ourselves. At the end of the day however, all social media is is an unfathomably superficial representation of our place in the world and our relationships with other things and other people that tells but a fraction of the story.
Perhaps the worst side-effect of social media is its propensity to undermine our relationships. So today I want to talk about a psychological phenomenon called ‘Projective Identification’, its negative effects, and the potential of social media to exacerbate it.
Projective identification is a mechanism that both makes and ruins friendships and relationships. The best way to illustrate what this it is is to give an example.
Say Person A smiles at person B across a room. They may have mutual friends; each know who there other is, and there is a mutual desire to get to know each other better. Later that day, Person A likes, say, Person B’s Instagram photo; Person B is happy, and this interaction confirms to both their desire to grow more acquainted with each other.
On the flipside, say Person B has begun to feel unsure of Person A’s feelings towards them. Perhaps she hasn’t texted him in a while, or didn’t ‘like’ his most recent profile picture. This hurts Person B, and he project the hurt he feels onto Person A; he feels pain, is it not natural to assume that she wants him to feel it, that she feels as ambivalent towards him as he feels towards her?
Ambivalence, exacerbated perhaps by personal insecurity x or y, can then turn to mistrust, and eventually to outright dislike. As you can imagine, this cooling of relations is part of that human instinct of self-preservation. Nobody wants to feel pain; romanticising sadness and anger will always get us into trouble. But it breaks friendships, and it breaks relationships. It is worsened by the level of interconnectivity we have today; every new Instagram post you make constitutes an opportunity for one of your friends not to ‘like’ your public activity.
And it works both ways. Sometimes, the last thing we want to see is the highlight reel of other people’s lives. Social media allows people to be selective about the side of themselves they wish to present, and it’s all too easy to be bitter about the achievements of people you kind of know.
I consider deleting Facebook perhaps twice a day. There is simply too much anxiety in the act of putting yourself out there in front of your friends, your distant family, and everyone you ever met at a party.
But like any anxiety, this can be fought by not dwelling too much on the symbolism behind it, and choosing not to doubt your friends. Confidence is a choice. I dare you to try spending a day without social media. Or at least Facebook. Instagram and tumblr are marginally better for the soul. SMS still works, believe it or not. Use it. Throw your iPhone into the Cam, even. Sometimes I think the thing I’m most nostalgic about is playing Snake on my mum’s Nokia.