The Social Media Effect: The devastation of constant self-scrutiny

It’s fair to say that interpersonal scrutiny is not a new human behavior. We are a self-curious species – we constantly long to understand more about the people around us, how their lives might be similar or different from ours, and whether we should shift our behavior to accommodate or rebel against theirs. What is new, as of this decade, is the sheer pervasiveness of tools with which to do this, and the now normal constancy with which we now engage in scrutiny of ourselves and others.

Think about the person you want to be. Now think about the person you are. Is there a large degree of difference between the two? Decades of research shows that the more space between the “Ideal” and “Real” perceptions of self, the more discontent (often in the form of depression and anxiety) will be present. It makes sense then, that with an ever-present vehicle for constant personal evaluation and interpersonal comparison, we have a very fine-tuned idea of what we “should” be and how our actual self differs from that. We are exposed, from dawn ’til dusk, to messages from advertisers and carefully edited presentations of friends and loved ones that remind us that we “could be better” (further shaping our ideal self). Simultaneously, we work to craft a presentation of ourself that matches our own ideal self as closely as we can manage, using meticulously edited words, images, reflections of culture and ideas we support. And feedback is constant, in the form of digital, quantifiable approval of whether or not we have reached the place we “should” be.

This striving to reconcile the “Ideal” and “Real” selves is a normal and natural part of being human, but these new tools of self-scrutiny offer an ease and frequency of engagement with this struggle that we’ve never experienced before. Barely a calorie is burned and we’ve tapped our app open to check our approval ratings, or to see what others might be failing at or accomplishing.

For years, we’ve watched high profile and highly scrutinized celebrities express deep discontent with their quality of lives, work to escape from the spotlight, or seek avoidance tactics that are life-threatening. What does it mean that our self-presentation is no longer limited to our in-person presence with others (with its flood of non-verbal feedback and easy access to seek clarification or resolve conflict), but is instead accessible to a huge quantity of others at any time of day? That others can provide critical feedback around the clock, from a relatively protected place? A position which has been shown to reduce inhibitions or perspective-taking ability, leading to less empathy and therefore more interpersonal injury? What happens to us when we engage in this distant judgement of others, typed or perceived, from the time we wake until the time we sleep? How does that affect our feelings and our understanding of ourselves?

Research shows that early life experiences that are high in criticizing feedback correlate with later experiences of perfectionistic behavior. This behavior has a distinct purpose – to provide ourselves with a sense of agency over our lives. It can be quite relieving to feel empowered to strive and try to meet the bar of “perfect.” It gives us a job, work to do, in a world where we have learned that attempts to tear us down can come from anywhere, even relationships that are supposed to be “safe.” If we can just get to perfect, we tell ourselves, maybe the injury will stop. And yet, perfectionism is a set of motivational behaviors that leave space only for 1) Perfection or 2) Failure. And by its very nature, to maintain motivation, momentum, and empowerment, perfection is impossible to achieve. So what does it mean that we are now constantly exposed to external criticism and self-criticism? Will our tendency toward perfectionistic behaviors increase markedly and as a group? What does a culture of people who spend a large part of their time and energy defending against criticism even look like? Does it look like ours, now?

Psychologist and theorist Erik Erikson (who you’ll have heard of if you’ve ever taken an introductory psychology course) named adolescence and early twenties as a time in our lives where we struggle mightily with the question of our identity – we literally spend our time and effort striving to understand who we actually are. Moving successfully through this identity crisis is indicated by a more confident understanding of who we are and how we want to engage with the world around us. We don’t yet know what it means that younger generations (and almost all future adults) seeking to understand themselves will have been incubated in this new arena of constant self- and other-scrutiny. Will it accelerate or lengthen the period of crisis? Can there be a resolution to the identity crisis at all if the pressure of perfect presentation is constantly upon us, with the threat of interpersonal injury constantly available to undermine our sense of self?

And perhaps more devastating than the advent of these incredibly effective tools of self-scrutiny, is the fact that we also have so few cultural resources to cultivate tools for mindfulness, self-acceptance or self-compassion. Philosophers, theologians, and literary thinkers have concluded for centuries that the antidote to the pressure of perfectionism and self-scrutiny is mindfulness and self-compassion. Having the skills to turn toward ourselves, however uncomfortable that may be, and take ownership of that self and offer love to the person we actually are. Not to hold that actual self to an unreachable standard of performance or appearance, but to let the self, in the present moment, with all of its immense human fallibility, feel wholly worthy and loved.

At our core a social species, we crave this information – we are working to accomplish SOMETHING by engaging so constantly with these tools, but what? What does it offer us to be so talented at self-scrutiny? To have such a concrete example of our “ideal self” displayed to the world? What does it mean when our real self falls short, and there is a permanent digital record of that? How do we find our actual, real selves – and then learn to love them – in all this muck?