On a recent visit to the Museum of Modern Art with a friend and her daughter, meandering through the museum’s exhibits, I was struck by how often my friend’s 13-year-old daughter asked us to take photos of her in front of the artwork.
Her head tilted, she gazed contemplatively at the pieces, the photos of which she would then feverishly post on Instagram, Snapchat, and all the rest. She wasn’t the only young (or older) person doing this; it seemed everyone was busy taking photos of themselves “experiencing” the museum.
This is by no means a criticism of my friend’s daughter (or anyone else). What was concerning, at least to me, was that in between being photographed and posting, my friend’s daughter had no interest in the artwork. This fact didn’t seem to matter or have any relationship with posting herself as someone enjoying the experience.
The only time that she looked at the artwork, in fact, was when we were photographing her looking at it. Even then, she was mostly gazing in the direction of the art, with a soft focus that didn’t seem to take in the art itself. When I asked her why she wanted to put up photos of herself in the museum when she clearly didn’t like being there, she smiled, shrugged her shoulders, and asked me to take another photo.
When I was her age, I had no interest in going to museums either, and when I did get dragged there, I couldn’t wait to get out of the building. Having no interest in art is completely normal and not disturbing in the least. But what is disturbing is how much of a young person’s energy now goes into creating an image of the life they’re living and the character they play in that life.
While creating a self-image has always been a big part of growing up and figuring out our identities, social media seems to have changed the rules of the game. Social media hasn’t just intensified the pressure and possibility to create a self-generated self-image, but also distorted the process by which we become who we are.
Young people now seem to be creating an image of who they are instead of becoming who they are—posting their life rather than living it. The effort that goes into creating an identity and getting it noticed or “followed” has replaced the effort of actually getting interested in the life they are posting.
Social media has turned life and its experiences into an exercise in narcissism. No matter what the experience is actually about, it becomes about you, the person who is living it. A concert isn’t about the music, a restaurant not about the food, a sporting event not about the sport; it’s all about you, the doer, and what the event says about you.
For those who tie their identity closely to their social media feeds, life experiences aren’t lived directly so much as they are used as opportunities for announcing what kind of person they are. Life is now a product through which to promote your image, with little connection to whether that image accurately reflects the inside you.
This relationship with social media is one of the most disturbing ways that we are changing in the face of new technology. For too many of us, it seems that our experiences now only have meaning when they say something about us. And it’s a double-edged sword: As we feel more separate and disconnected from our lives, meaning feels harder to find.
The more we use life to create an identity, the more cut off from life we feel. Instead of being part of it, in the flow of life, we feel as if we have to keep generating new “life material,” which will announce us, establish us, and ultimately, prove our existence. In the meantime, the chasm between us and life grows wider and wider.
Here’s an invitation: The next time you are inclined to post your story, pause for a moment and instead experience where you are. Feel what it feels like to live without doing anything with it. Just be, without the narrative. While it may feel like this could make you miss an opportunity to establish your value, in fact, the benefits it can offer to your true self will far outweigh any loss incurred.
Nancy Colier is a psychotherapist, interfaith minister, author, public speaker, workshop leader, and author of several books on mindfulness and personal growth. She is available for individual psychotherapy, mindfulness training, spiritual counseling, public speaking, and workshops, and also works with clients via Skype around the world. For more information, visit NancyColier.com.