Sanity and the Social Highlights Reel

...at all costs! A lot has been said (sometimes in only 140 characters) about how Facebook’s news feed becomes a highlights reel of our friends’ lives, and about the chronic insecurity generated by comparing our own lives with that unattainably consistent positivity. I understand it might be hard to believe that someone as great as me could suffer from what’s coming to be called Facebook envy, but I must confess that from time to time I do.

Heretical Confession

The violence inherent in the system I saw a post today by a woman I respect and to whom I wish nothing but success. It was a beautiful and wise celebration of her delight and joy. My honest emotional reaction, though (and it is my own responsibility) was envy, sadness, anger, dismay, and finally shame. That’s the bit that feels risky because, as I’ll argue below, it feels like confessing it is nearly a heresy, especially when it’s a reaction to something I feel I ought to celebrate.

My question was: Why do I feel it’s risky to share my negative feelings? The personal, positive post I read is very welcome, but why does a personal and negative one feel unwelcome? I asked about that on Facebook, and I must thank the friends who responded for effectively co-authoring this post.

Public/Private?

One responded that “people don't post about shame, suffering or failure … because they consider it too personal for such a broad audience.” That’s intuitively sensible. And it’s odd, then, that their opposites – pride, happiness and success – are not thought too personal. Why are the positives welcome while the negatives are not?

In Order To Be Successful

I think it's because we receive the affirmation and approach we want for sharing positive things, and the rejection and retreat we fear for sharing negative ones. In the words of Buddy Kane, ‘Real Estate King’ in the masterpiece film, American Beauty: “In order to be successful, one must project an image of success at all times.”

It is beautifully human to want happiness and success. To get those, most of the time, we want affirmation from others (for many of us, affirmation from others constitutes success). The catch is that to receive affirmation in our society it’s often necessary to project success and happiness. The feeling is that few people will, for instance, hire or go to bed with us if we’re failing or unhappy.

The Absence of Legitimate Suffering

To reveal failure or unhappiness is to court rejection. We all fear rejection, so we don’t reveal failure or unhappiness. That’s why Facebook becomes a highlights reel: none of us are safe to share our negativity. We can share our joy, our pride, our success and our happiness, but we must not reveal our envy, our shame, our failure or our suffering.

The toxicity of that is obvious: the negative and painful aspects of our life are collectively ignored, pushed away into what psychologists call the shadow. That imbalance creates a collective neurosis, which, in Carl Jung’s words, is always a substitute for legitimate suffering.

The fundamental problem, for me, is that we want to deny our suffering, to ourselves and to each other. The more we all tacitly agree to pretend we don’t suffer, the harder it is for any of us to contact our hearts, which are tender and do suffer. That pretence can make Facebook a lonely place to be -- and it's hard to opt out of it.

Don’t Spoil My Trip…

One other reason it's hard to opt out of the pretence is that admitting our failures or sufferings might make others feel uncomfortable. That’s very true.

When we’re happy and life is great, it’s an inconvenience to be faced with another’s suffering. It’s a fly in the ointment, it spoils our trip, and it happens a lot in Cape Town: just when you’re having a great time, you stop at a traffic light and there’s someone with no money begging for small change. We do our best to ignore that part of reality, because it spoils our trip.

See no suffering

In my view, it’s mostly atmospheres of positivity that marginalise the negative, but it’s important to acknowledge also that atmospheres of negativity can and do marginalise the positive, which is no less painful or toxic. The dynamic is fundamentally the same: a trip is constructed to confirm our ego, and anything is rejected that would put us in danger of feeling the pain of seeing and letting go of that ego-support, i.e. for a negative trip, the possibility of having a positive attitude.

…In Other Words, My Heart Is Tender

Clinging to a positive storyline and rejecting negativity, or clinging to a negative storyline and rejecting positivity: both are clinging to some kind of trip and partaking in a neurosis.

That neurosis is a substitute for the legitimate suffering that’s inescapable in being human: being subject to the impacts of life’s vicissitudes on our painfully tender hearts. It takes courage to look honestly at ourselves, our sufferings and our joys, and it takes even more courage to reveal that to others when we might upset someone’s trip and be rejected.

And yet, sanity has to start somewhere.