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Barbara & Shannon Kelley

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Pick a You, Any You: The Emotional Cost of Living Online

Posted: 09/18/11 09:42 AM ET

Be authentic. What does that even mean, anyway? Not a whole hell of a lot, according to Stephanie Rosenbloom in last Sunday's New York Times. The word, she says, has been watered down to the point of meaninglessness, like so many white wine spritzers. Everyone from Anderson Cooper to Sarah Ferguson to Katie Couric to Michelle Bachmann to the Pope have claimed the descriptor, generally while in the service of selling themselves.

And, as Rosenbloom's piece points out and as we've written before, celebrities aren't entirely to blame for our culture of faux-thenticity. We're complicit in it, too. Think about your Facebook profile -- and now imagine what it would look like if it were truly authentic. Take mine, for example: instead of that cute profile pic of me smiling broadly in New Orleans alongside a status update alluding to a highbrow day of writing, my pic might show me sitting at my computer, in the chair I've spent so much time in, I've literally worn the finish off of it. And if I were to be authentic about it, today's status update -- rather than being glamorous, pithy, or intelligent -- might read: Unshowered. Writer's block. Dining on a spoonful of peanut butter.

Writing in the New York Times Magazine, Peggy Orenstein once confessed that, while spending some glorious time with her little girl listening to E.B. White reading Trumpet of the Swan, a nasty thought intruded: How will I tweet this? She admits that the tweet she decided on ("Listening to E.B. White's Trumpet of the Swan with Daisy. Slow and sweet.") was "not really about my own impressions. It was about how I imagined -- and wanted -- others to react to them."

Marketing folks might say we're branding ourselves in our profile pictures, our status updates, our tweets. We say that maybe we're feeding the iconic self, the self-image we've constructed, which, in ways big and small, is the face of our great expectations. It's us and not us, the version of ourselves we want to be, the version we think most likely to win approval. And in a culture that raises women to be pleasers, we are all about approval.

Technology raises the stakes for the iconic self. As it invites us to reveal ourselves to the world, also presents an opportunity to edit the image we project just a little more. It not only creates more work and more anxiety about what that perfect image should look like, but it also creates something else to feel guilty about. As Orenstein's reflection suggests, constructing that persona -- the inauthenticity (read: dishonesty) of it -- doesn't tend to feel good.

So why do we keep playing this game? Where did we become convinced that the faux is any more acceptable than the real? And why do we so readily buy into the idea that the images everyone else is presenting are any more real than our own? Why is it so hard to embrace the idea that, to varying degrees, we're all a little messy?

Amid all of this image-building, online and off, we lose something. Look around, and you'll notice that our performances are remarkably similar. Someone asks how you're doing; you say fine. You ask her; she says fine. Fine, then! We worry what other people think (though we'd never admit it), and, of course, we want to be happy, confident, competent, and successful. So we pretend we are. And, compounding the issue is the fact that the happy, confident, competent, successful self is the self everyone else shows to us, too, which compels us to keep our dirty little secret under even deeper wraps. If she (and she and she) has it together, what the hell is the matter with me???

It's the open secret Rumi wrote about (and to which Elizabeth Lesser makes beautiful reference here), yet, centuries later, we still feel compelled to keep. And that's understandable. Who wants to admit to being afraid, uncertain, overwhelmed, clumsy, neurotic, or prone to saying the wrong thing? The thing is, though, all of those things are part of the human condition-and those things and the good things aren't mutually exclusive. And so why should claiming them be a negative? On the contrary: I think there's a promise of something pretty awesome that comes when we're able to own it all. The sky doesn't fall, but the blinders do.

And then what might we see? Well, for one thing, maybe a willingness to own our complex, dualistic, not always delightful but utterly human nature can make our choices a little bit clearer. With no one to impress, no images to uphold, we've got a lot less to factor in. There's a freedom there. And power, too: because when we are willing to come out of the I'm Fine! closet, our friends might join us. And that, I bet, would make for one hell of a party.

 
 
 

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