Escape Narcissism

Let us emerge from our self-imposed cages.

Lately, I've been cleaning up my digital photos. The goal is to eliminate redundancies and bad photos, the latter of which are determined by small file size, low resolution, improper camera angles, and meaningless or confusing content.

As I began dredging my pictures, I noted a dominating presence of selfies. After a brief period of shock, self-loathing, followed by grim acknowledgement, I collected them all in a folder, labeled creatively, "Ali Selfies." In counting them, I found more than 1000 (I won't tell you the real number). Why so many? What spurred this dramatic increase in documenting my face? I traced them back to the relative year of inception, 2004. The year I got the Motorola Razr phone. The year my first serious relationship ended. And the year I joined Facebook.  

At that time, Facebook was only available for college students. I was senior at the University of San Diego, and I worked as the Features Editor of The Vista. One day at the office, someone broached the topic of "another MySpace," and we editors became extremely intrigued. We were already frolicking on MySpace and AOL instant messenger, but we were thrilled at the prospect of yet another method to commune with our fellow undergrads. After signing up, we spent the afternoon poking each other and crafting witty status updates. We sent friend requests to our roommates, our boyfriends, our girlfriends. We wanted to "friend" everyone we had ever come into contact with. Facebook would feed our desperation for social interaction beyond university walls. Little did we know Facebook would prey on our insecurities and assist in our evolution as narcissists. 

Narcissism is defined as a "tendency to believe one’s self to be superior to others', to persistently pursue admiration from others, and to participate in egotistic thinking and behavior" (Panek, Nardis & Konrath, 2013). Numerous studies show a strong correlation between insecure, narcissistic tendencies and social media use. There's a very good chance that people who post self-promotional content, and those who spend more than one hour a day on Facebook or other social networks have issues with their self esteem. There's also a good chance that those who practice the art of the "selfie" or utilize social media (barring business purposes) are feeding into their own insecurities, producing narcissistic tendencies.

For individuals such as myself, aged 18-33 (the Millennial Generation), taking selfies and using social media platforms may seem to be integral parts of life. We have an inherent need for attention, since we are products of the self esteem movement, emphasized by parental hovering, instant gratification, and meaningless praise. Social media feeds the need for instant rewards: it both creates and rewards narcissistic tendencies by providing an endless outlet for self-promotion. Once we acknowledge this generational trend, we can be aware of its manifestation in our actions, and make our acumen for social media into something useful, instead of something detrimental.

Before joining Facebook, I already had a rich (albeit detrimental) digital life on MySpace. I carefully curated photo albums of my travels, and posted highly Photoshopped profile pictures. I took advantage of the embedded music player and chose what I thought were unique songs on a rotating basis. One month David Bowie's Modern Love might play upon entering, the next month would be Sweet Emotion by Aerosmith, after that, perhaps some hip hop featuring members of Hieroglyphics.  I included something about how I only watch Coen Brothers films even though if you asked me what films they made, I could only name "The Big Lebowski."

By using both Myspace and Facebook, my self esteem rose and fell with each font change, each message, and each new connection. I hid behind the curtain of digital interaction. I thought that everyone would be interested in what I was doing, and I wanted them to know what I was doing. This was the essence of self-promotion for its own sake. Once I grew more aware of the reasons behind my digital habits, I became disgusted with myself. I quit MySpace in 2007. I quit Facebook shortly after. 

During my years of disconnection, I reconnected with myself. I got a dog and, through his companionship, I rekindled a genuine appreciation for solitude and nature. I went on long walks through forested trails without posting to social media. Instead of checking Facebook when I was bored, I put more time into planning events with friends and family, and into conversing in real time, sans device, with those around me. I put my time and energy into my Education Master's program where I received a near 4.0. I experienced entire albums on vinyl while exploring the not-so-secret world of craft beer. I began handwriting letters again. I resumed reflecting on my own life instead the lives of others.

It is 2016, and I have since rejoined Facebook. But, now I use it with awareness and moderation.  I try not to use my device as a distraction, even though this can be difficult at times. I've turned off all notifications, and only "like" or post something when I think the information is truly useful to at least a few of my connections. I am aware when I enter "social media loops" from which it is difficult to emerge. Through my trial, and my error, I have come to understand the true essence and purpose of Facebook: under the guise of "connecting with friends," Facebook only exists as a means to promote ourselves to others.

Some psychologists are calling the resulting self-promotional phenomenon "The New [socially acceptable] Narcissism." However, I don't think that narcissism should be a social normative in our society.  Extreme self-involvement should never be OK, and people should not abuse themselves as such on social media. Instead, we should be aware of the reasons we picking up our devices and losing ourselves to social media. We should know why we feel like seeking attention from others online. Above all, we need to acknowledge our offline loneliness, and overcome our fears of isolation and rejection. When we come to terms with our social needs, we can get to the heart of our insecurities, thereby emerging from our narcissistic cages.