They say that the internet provides a veil. It gives you the opportunity to be the person you want the world to think you are, and hide the truth.
We only see are the interesting and beautiful parts of other peoples’ lives. And even they are probably manufactured to appear a little more interesting and beautiful than they really are.
We might look at the highlights of peoples’ lives and experience envy and loneliness. Because we don’t see them experiencing the same struggles as us.
But unless we take responsibility and change how and what we share, the cycle continues.
I’ve spoken to new parents who are really struggling on the inside. But if I was to believe their Facebook feed, they appear to have parenthood completely cracked. They are zen masters, living a life of joy-filled harmonious perfection.
Or people running businesses, who appear to be successfully living the dream. They post photos of their well crafted workspace on Instagram every morning. But beneath the veil, they are stressed, with mountains of debt. Hoping that they can somehow fake it until they make it.
And the people you know are experiencing cracks and fragility within their relationship. But online, it appears to be unbreakable romance, sweetness, and love.
There’s rarely anything malicious or even particularly conscious about these veils. I don’t think many of us set out to deliberately deceive or sugarcoat our lives. If you’ve watched Catfish then yes, some people do. But a lot of the time we do it without much awareness.
So why do we dress things up online?
Do we intentionally set out to create these kinds of false perceptions? Or are they speaking into something deeper?
What if it springs from an unconscious hope…that by pretending things are good, they might become good. That by veiling the truth, we might actually experience how it feels not to carry the shame and insecurity we have.
In other words, what if we are driven by the desire to feel ‘normal’.
How would it feel to be a perfect family? Post pictures of your kid and see the comments, emojis, and swooning, fly in and show you.
How would it feel to be a successful entrepreneur? Post photos of your workspace, and get that buzz of importance when people validate it with their envy.
It’s the same with other masked behaviours we see online. Like ‘virtue signalling’, engaging in hipster trends, and public shaming on Twitter.
These are often veils around our own vulnerabilities.
The unconscious questions we ask:
What sort of person do I want people to think I am? What do I want to care about? And perhaps more poignantly, who do I want to believe I am?
These are the same questions that drive us in everyday physical interactions with strangers. When we meet new people, go on dates, start new jobs etc. This is not a new tendency. It is just pulled into sharper focus by the online world.
Oh and the other question, which underpins all of this…how can I appear to be ‘normal’ so that I belong?
Social Media is the closest thing we have to a social mirror. It shows us how we appear to other people.
Scroll through your own Facebook profile, or Twitter feed. That is what you look like to the world.
Do you recognise the person there? Do you feel encouraged and connected? Or are you left feeling a bit envious and lonely?
Roll Back the Veil
Superman’s mask is Clark Kent. He builds the persona based on what he thinks will create the least suspicion. So chooses the veil of social awkwardness to throw people off any ideas that he is a superhero. Where many put on the mask to become the superhero, Superman puts on the mask to blend in.
Ironically, this is what we often do online. The social media veil isn’t used to make us appear better than we are. It is used to make us feel normal and like everyone else. Or at least, how we believe others are. We wear the veil in order to fit in and feel accepted. Not to stand out and feel isolated.
It is only when we begin to understand vulnerability that we peel back the mask of normality. When we remove the things that we THINK make us special (creating perceptions of perfection), we open up the potential to really connect with other people.
Some people hear the call to be vulnerable as permission to overshare and spill their deepest secrets all over the internet. They open themselves up to harm by exposing their vulnerabilities. Others might be waiting and willing to exploit this in harmful ways. While it is impossible to truly protect against that kind of thing, it is possible to interact with the idea of vulnerability in a positive and healthy way. Because vulnerability is about connection, not separation.
Connective Ways to Make Yourself Vulnerable:
- Say something encouraging
- Put your arm around someone (physically or metaphorically online)
- Admit to a fear/anxiety/pain you’ve experienced
- Share your hopes and dreams with someone
- Stand up for injustice
- Use Humour (find something to laugh about in all situations)
My friend Jim Woods has started sharing the occasional #notetoself online. He pulls things from his morning pages journal that he feels will make other people feel less alone, and Tweets them.
We need to be people who are OK with being human. To remove the masks of ‘normality’ (how I think I should be in order to fit in/be like others). And embrace the worts and all superhero beneath.
Cut people some slack. Don’t assume that, just because you have a perception of them based on their social media presence, that it’s true. And on the same token, don’t assume that other people are deliberately trying to fool you. Because we can’t control that. But we can control how we think about, use, and get a sense of self-worth (or lack of) from it.
We are all just silly little superheroes, trying our best to fit in and be normal like Clark Kent. For some of us that means trying to impress people. While for others it means keeping the secret hidden behind a suit and a pair of glasses. Either way, you get to choose what you’re going to do next.
What can you do to lift the veil and connect on a human level with someone today?