So many Facebook status updates are about that new job, what a wonderful wedding you had, how great that concert was last night. "Weekend trip with the girls was amazing! Thanks Vegas!" 50 likes. 19 comments. Maybe it's just a function of my friend list, but whenever something not-so positive comes up, it's crickets. "I'm having a really tough time finding a job right now." 0 likes. 2-3 comments, mainly "hang in there!" or " :( " But mostly, it's clear that while those same 50 people who liked that Vegas status saw the job one, that was not something they chose to interact with, even though it would have been far more valuable.
By prioritizing engagement with "success posts," we perpetuate this online culture of vast insecurity, and thus, a lack of space for expression of failure. As pastor and author Steven Furtick famously said, "The reason we struggle with insecurity is because we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else's highlight reel."
If the social web is indeed just a place for superficial and trite interactions, "likes" and emoticons, then perhaps this is not such a big deal. The humble brags can continue, and so can our passive responses to them. However, the reality is that for better or worse, more and more our our life experiences -- from Skype calls with loved ones to entertainment -- are being lived online. After all, Silicon Valley really wants us to believe in the promise of a more connected world via the web.
But when it comes to public social expressions of emotion, only the good stuff seems welcome. The consequences for such a dynamic go far beyond fears of measuring up to the false positives, and beyond the self-image and achievement perception deficits; what we really are engendering is a lack of space for vulnerability and support for one another through times of struggle.
So, as an egregious perpetrator of the faux-happiness update, and one who typically has great difficulty expressing vulnerability, today I want to post about my failures. Here we go:
I am afraid my startup is about to collapse, and I don't know how to handle it emotionally. I feel nearly unemployable in the only field I am passionate about. Next month, unless I find a new job, I will run out of money. I sometimes suffer from depression (onset by the above) that makes it difficult for me to even get out of bed. I am $120,000 in grad school debt, and in order to pay for it, I may have take a job in the industry I borrowed all that money to get away from. And I feel completely alone in this struggle. And watching all your successes just make me feel worse about it.
That was terrifying.
I have now risked my external image of being a strong, successful woman who has it together. And if a future employer reads this, they will likely become a former future employer. But I'm tired of having this conversation with myself. I have this network of 1,300 friends on the internet, yet I'm scared to actually share my real life with them. Something is clearly wrong with that.
Beyond my own embarrassment, there is another reason that was difficult to write: I know that expressing my failure makes people uncomfortable, and nothing scares a "strong" person more than the fear of unreciprocated vulnerability. Having observed others' attempts at sharing their failures online -- and not the typical "lessons learned" type, but the real time no-fix-on-the-horizon type -- I believe that revealing my own is likely to result in a detached attempt at solution offering. Links to articles on self-motivation; being told I'm amazing because I went to Princeton and Harvard, or worse, that I have nothing to "complain" about because I'm smart and can get a job whenever I want to. Maybe someone will type a sad face.
But most people will just skip over it. Almost no one will pick up the phone and try to connect. And so instead, with all these fears in tow, I Instagram a pic of my gorgeous dinner last night I could barely afford from the sad confines of my bed I have no energy to climb out of today.
When we hear about someone else's pain, especially through the veil of bits and bytes, it's easy to frame it in whatever way makes it easier to for us handle it. We can ignore it. We can write it off as complaining. It's also easy to refer to our defaults: we toss any number of solutions at them, or tell them how everything will be alright. But this doesn't serve the person who is reaching out. We can throw on our armor to protect against others' vulnerabilities for fear that in order to truly hold them, to be with them in that space, to aid them, we ourselves must expose our own pains, failures, and struggles. And we miss an opportunity for a real human connection.
And it's no wonder. This virtual social world was not built for pain, but was instead designed as a way to craft an aspirational affirmation-hungry existence. But there is real pain in both the physical and virtual worlds, far more than wins and weddings and graduations. We all know that in the physical world we need emotional sanctuary with physical people in real space. But when this virtual world makes the promise of connection despite oceans and time zones, and people feel safe to move away from home, safe to take that job in Uganda, safe to document their lives via Instagram, Facebook, and Path, where does the sanctuary lie? How can we create proxy spaces in the virtual world where we can be free not only to open up ourselves, but to have to courage to engage fully and authentically with those we care about in their times of great vulnerability?