Splitting, also known as black-and-white-thinking, is a common defense mechanism employed by those who want to get a handle on a difficult situation or relationship.
People who split tend to see things as entirely good or entirely evil. There’s no room for grey area. But the perception of if something is good or evil can alternate, making it quite an ineffective coping strategy.
Though less drastic, many of us default to splitting when it comes to social media. On good days we see its value to connect people and ideas. On bad days we despise it for making us into a society of phoneys and performers.
Life Without An Audience
Comedian and musician Bo Burnham talks about this in his Netflix special Make Happy.
Burnham reasons that the most recent generations worship a cult of self-expression, and social media is the market’s answer to that. We cultivate and teach arrogance. The internet, especially social media, asks us to perform for each other endlessly. We are both the performer and audience members of our own life.
People write tweets in a certain style knowing it feeds exactly into the formula that is rewarded by Twitter users. Insta-influencers know just how to pose and how much clothing to lose in order to garner those desired likes.
Content is created specifically for the purpose of getting attention. And that’s not creativity. It’s also not the True Self at work.
Online life is a performance. Performances are an act. So who are you when you don’t have an audience? What do you do when you’re alone?
The True Self vs. False Self
To explore this topic, let’s consider the theories of British psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott. Winnicott specialized in child psychology and theorized that the happiest adults are those who were able to express their true selves as children.
This means that there were times during our childhood when we were able to express ourselves fully and wholly, to act and react in a way that is true to our selves and didn’t consider the opinion of parents or others who had expectations of us. We screamed when we were upset. We drew crazy squiggle neighborhoods with our crayons. We sang a nonsense song while eating cereal.
According to Winnicott, one’s True Self isn’t concerned with the opinions of others. As children, we played how we wanted to play, free of expectation, with pure imagination. We did things we were truly interested in, because we as individuals enjoyed them, not because a peer or an authority figure told us to do it.
The False Self is the mask we have developed to please our parents, teachers, friends and, in the last decade, the fickle masses of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram. Though it comes in handy in some situations, it is the Self that many of us default into — and as such is the source of much misery, since authentic, unadulterated creativity and expression are pushed down.
Developing One’s True Self
Even if the True Self was lost somewhere in childhood (or worse, never developed), we can still find our way to our inner child by not playing into the expectations of others.
We can do this in real life and online by avoiding formulaic social media content, and instead doing things we actually enjoy, without documenting every single foraged mushroom or ujjayi breath for the likes.
Think back to what play and activities you enjoyed as a child. Drawing? Then draw! Rollerblading? Go on and roll those blades. Did you like to read? Then read! Do it because you find pleasure in it, not because you think posting the cover of the 20th book you’ve read that month will get you kudos from internet strangers.
The Path to Authenticity
Here it’s worth mentioning Dr. Brené Brown’s work on shame and vulnerability. Much like Winnicott’s work, Dr. Brown’s now-famous TED speech on vulnerability explores the path to our most authentic self.
You might think that you are most alone when you are vulnerable. It might feel that way, but as Dr. Brown’s research shows, vulnerability is the first step to belonging and feeling whole. In fact, the key to a full, happy life, is to shed this idea of perfectionism — shed the expectations from others and from yourself – in order to be truly creative. To live, as she puts it so beautifully, wholeheartedly.
Living with a whole heart means being truly authentic to yourself, especially when there is no audience to offer feedback and a sense of worthiness.
The False Self is a product of perfectionism. We try to create a version of ourselves, often online, to appeal to others. To get recognition. To feel important and worthwhile and like we’re living. And that is what is making us miserable.
When we find our way to our True Self, we can just be. For ourselves. We can play. Create. Freely and joyfully, with a whole heart.
So who are you really when there is no internet audience? Maybe it’s time to get offline for a while and see what it means.