Empowerment vs. Shame

Part I: Shame

There is a principle, popularized by Abraham Maslow, that if all you have is a hammer, then every problem begins to look like a nail. I  identify with this. My figurative hammer is shame. I have the ingrained habit, perfected over the years, of addressing every problem in my life by shaming myself. I find some way that a problem is my fault, I think because it gives me the illusion of control over the situation. The truth is, lots of problems are out of my hands and are influenced by other people’s actions, which I cannot control. (There are of course problems that are my fault, but even those don’t require the high dose of shame that I prescribe myself.)

Shame is a paralytic, not a motivator. No major change in my life has ever come from shame: I have only ever changed my habits or behaviour if I had some positive goal motivating me. Shame makes you run away from something, not work toward something, and that is why it fails.

I see shaming in action every day. People are starting to call attention to it more (so much so that even the very word “shaming” has become a bit of a cliché buzzword), and I am actually very grateful for the increased awareness of the futility and unhealthiness of shaming. People shame to try and inspire change (which doesn’t work) or just to worsen the mood and self-esteem of others, which is absolutely useless and pretty cruel. Many people, though, don’t shame others but instead choose to shame themselves.

So why do some of us excel at shaming ourselves if it is, at best, futile or, at worst, cruel? I don’t have a definitive answer, but I can think of some reasons:

  • We copy other people’s actions
    • Strong is the urge to mimic others! We see people shame and experience people shaming us, and we learn that that is supposed to help, so we do it too.
  • We are introspective to a fault
    • We are in our heads so much that it is difficult to extricate ourselves. We are so used to examining our own motives, faults, habits, etc. that it is hard to see that we are not always the cause of every difficulty.
  • We don’t want to be arrogant
    • Instead of building up a false sense of confidence, we go to the other extreme and foster a false sense of incompetence.
  • Blaming someone feels satisfying
    • It (over)simplifies situations and makes them feel more manageable and easier to address.

Part II: Empowerment

What exactly does empowerment mean? To me, it means being able to recognise your strengths as well as the power and control that you do have—an accurate recognition of what exactly is in your control is crucial. Becoming empowered can often negate the feeling from shame that most things are in your control, actually. How does this make sense? Empowerment causes a shift in consciousness: instead of actively trying to make things your own fault, you more accurately perceive what is or isn’t your fault, and your focus often shifts from certain features of a situation to others. Being introspective to a fault leads you to believe that you are responsible for more things than you actually are, and empowerment lets you cast aside useless, inaccurate notions of responsibility and focus on the probably completely different things that actually are in your control.

Now, let me be clear: this is not a post about dismissing the very real problems people have that are in fact out of their control. Some people complain too much and fault others for what they are responsible for themselves. This post is not directed at those people; this post is directed at people who shame and place blame on themselves when things are not their fault.

I am not suggesting that more things are in your control than you think: on the contrary! My idea is more that you often can’t control your circumstances, but you can control your reaction to them. And pointing out that there are problems in your circumstances caused by other people is a valid, constructive reaction a lot of times. I’m thinking, for example, of pointing out that people are prejudiced and treating you in an unfair way that is illogical and not backed by evidence. Thinking that being bullied or discriminated against is your own fault because you deserve it is not accurate—blaming yourself would be misplacing the blame. (It is actually a pet peeve of mine that some people will not recognise actual problems faced by other people just because they don’t personally experience those problems. My message is not to “just pull yourself up by your bootstraps and take responsibility.”) Think about it this way: if you do not address a problem’s source, you will not solve it. And if you misidentify the source and say that something is your fault when it is not, then you are not addressing the real source and not solving the problem.

What do I mean when I say that your focus will shift from some features of a situation to another? One example is that your focus will shift from the cause of a situation to your reaction to it. Instead of assigning yourself blame, you will instead see all of the various other ways you can react to the situation. Instead of automatically saying, “This is my fault,” you will say, “This isn’t my fault, but what can I still do to make this better, or at least feel better about it?”

I said at the beginning of this section that empowerment wasn’t just recognising what power and control you have but also recognising your strengths. This is a great way to combat self shaming. Strength is at odds with shame: Shame weakens your resolve and your self-esteem while seeing your own strength builds those up. Being able to know your strengths is a skill and is distinct from being arrogant. I think a key feature that distinguishes arrogance from simply knowing your strengths is feeling like you are better or worth more than other people. Recognising strengths does not have to come attached to comparison to others, and that is what separates it from haughtiness.

In conclusion

Empowerment negates shame and is more productive and healthy. We shame ourselves for a number of reasons, including to feel more in control of unmanageable situations. Being able to recognise what is and isn’t in our control gives us power.

Discussion questions

  1. Why do you think some of us shame ourselves so heavily?
  2. What do you think are the origins of shame?
  3. What does empowerment mean to you?
  4. When have you felt most empowered?

What Is Perfectionism?

I am a perfectionist, which means that I am rarely satisfied with my work. It does not mean that I do everything perfectly, am a high achiever, consistently do good work, or regularly accomplish my goals.

Perfectionism is a mindset that manifests itself in feelings and behaviours. I want to emphasize that those behaviours are not usually the expected ones when someone hears the word ‘perfectionism.’ I think that most people conflate being a perfectionist with being ‘type A’ or a high achiever, when that is just not the truth. Popularly, people think that perfectionists set high standards and then always achieve them when instead, they set impossible standards and never achieve them.

I used to take violin lessons. I told a new teacher that I had a hard time practising because I was a perfectionist. She clearly thought of perfectionism the way that most people do and answered, “Oh, that’s good! That means you’ll practice hard!” No, that’s not what it means. (If it did, I wouldn’t have let the teacher know it, as a disclaimer.)

It means that I will end up rarely, if ever, practising because I will always fail to perform at my expected level. It will be too painful to continue to practise while never reaching my goals. I will hate what I sound like and feel embarrassed.

Some signs of perfectionism include excessive double-checking and revisions to work. This makes a perfectionist invest a lot of time in one task that could take another person less than half the time to do. One thing that exacerbates the perfectionism is realizing what little output there is for the amount of time that went into a task. A perfectionist can spend hours on, for example, writing a few paragraphs and then will feel bad that such a simple task took so long.

Perfectionism breeds procrastination, not out of laziness but out of fear of not performing perfectly. Personally, I would put off assignments in school to force myself to only work a set amount of time on them. Otherwise, I would check and double check what I wrote for a long time. Sitting for hours constantly revising an assignment was maddening, especially with a constant negative commentary running through my head. It was incredibly painful, and procrastination was how I dealt with it.

Sometimes I would do more than procrastinate: I just wouldn’t turn in the assignment, even if I had worked a long time on it, because it fell short of my standards. I was so afraid of what would happen if I turned in sub par work. I was afraid of being judged by whoever graded it and thought that they would judge my character in general by my work. This lead to many bad grades.

Because of the popular view of perfectionism, I felt uncomfortable admitting that I struggled with it. I was afraid people wouldn’t believe me. How could a perfectionist do so poorly in school? If I were really a perfectionist, why didn’t I turn in perfect work? I would think back on my experience with the violin teacher or other times when people would confuse being an achiever with being a perfectionist.

Perfectionists can also be high achievers, but they are usually not satisfied with themselves. What to other people looks like outstanding work will seem like trash to the perfectionist author. Being a perfectionist means having a skewed view of reality and what ‘good’ work is.

Realising that you are a perfectionist and that the set of traits you have is a pattern that other people also have can be helpful. It makes you feel less alone and strange, and you can find tools to combat the problems. However, after the ignorance of thinking you are a special kind of incapable comes the realisation that you cannot trust yourself and your perceptions, which can be frightening (there are many types of mental processes this frightful feeling can be applied to).

As a way to combat my perfectionism, I’ve resolved not to mercilessly edit this post but let it stand.

Discussion Questions

1. Are you a perfectionist too? What do you wish people knew about it?

2. Where can perfectionism come from?

Bunnyhenge, Newport Beach

It all started when I stumbled upon the story of PonyHenge in Lincoln, Massachusetts. The Boston Globe reports that ‘a herd of some 30 wooden and plastic rocking horses gradually appeared on a sliver of farmland in the town of Lincoln’ and calls it ‘a whimsical mystery.’ The number and position of the ponies regularly changes and it is contested how exactly it started.

My favorite take-aways from the article are:

  1. ‘”It’s a spontaneous art production”, Pingeon said of the dreamlike scene’.
  2. ‘The rocking horses have a presence that falls somewhere between antique yard sale and spooky prank’.
  3. ‘“There is something about the quietness and mysteriousness of it that I just love”, Graver said’.

The story of PonyHenge delighted me—’whimsical mysteries’ are right up my alley—and I vowed to visit it one day. In the meantime, I wanted to see if there was anything similar in my area, so I started looking up weird roadside attractions. Cue an orchestra of sweeping strings because I found



This one isn’t a mystery (it’s an art installation), but it’s still whimsical enough for my tastes!

Visiting the sacred scene required a short jaunt up a winding path. When the bunnies came into view, I knew I was in for something special.




They had a quiet majesty about them.


Side note: To snap the first picture, I had to venture out onto the glass-walled walkway seen in the second picture. I am terribly afraid of heights, so my knees were shaking and I had to creep slowly forward to the edge. But I did it! And got a nice view of the bunnies as a reward. Looking up, I could also see a giant bunny in the distance, down another path.


I really want to start something like this, some sort of public art project! I’m guessing many people have contributed to PonyHenge, i.e. it’s not just one person adding horses, but I’m not sure how I could encourage similar participation among people around me.

Discussion Questions

  1. Who did it better: PonyHenge or BunnyHenge (aka the question of the century)?
  2. Have you seen any weird roadside attractions?
  3. Any ideas for how to garner participation for a public art project?

it hurts to become

Consider the following

Why do people say #adulting? Two main reasons, from what I’ve observed: to label tasks, either considered mature and responsible (like doing taxes) or the complete opposite, childish decisions, like eating Lucky Charms for dinner.

The consensus seems to be that Millennials who use the word “adulting” are immature and ridiculous, or at least a milder version of these two characteristics. One Baby Boomer in a post called “Adulting is an Indictment of Society, Not Millennials” actually defends us. But as I peruse posts about it, I can sense a certain disgruntled air from critics of the term.

I have a hypothesis that the use of #adulting often comes from a certain self-awareness and rejection of the status quo. Sure, some people may use the hashtag without any significant thought about the concept. But I feel using it can actually reveal a depth that is not often considered. I personally don’t even use the word ‘adulting’, but I think I understand why people might.

The Two Main Points

First is a self-awareness, or maybe a self-consciousness. We are calling attention to the fact that magic does not make us into adults overnight when we come of age. We see a sharper delineation between children and adults. We notice and realize that our belief as children that adults knew and could fix everything was not true because now we’re adults and we are far, far from omniscient and omnipotent. We call attention to the fact that it can be an adjustment to grow into “adult responsibilities,” which I suppose comes across as whining to some people. I don’t think it’s whining—I think it’s being genuine and observant!

Second is a refusal to blend in with the established order of things. The status quo says we need to fall in line and accept “adult responsibilities.” Or that at certain general ages, major milestones must be met: getting a “real” job, living on your own, etc. The problem with this is that these milestones are just vague enough to often be impossible to achieve. So you get a job. But wait, it isn’t full time? Oh. And it doesn’t have benefits? Oh. And you make only $X per year??? WOW. Certain achievements don’t seem to count. There is a mould, a model we are expected to fill in order to be respected. But there is always more we can do, more prestige we can aggregate. I think there have always been people who reject the status quo; they’ve perhaps been labeled ‘counter culture’ or similar terms before. Some of those people now are using the word ‘adulting’ because their lives don’t match how they’re ‘supposed to’ be and are being mocked.


A key point in this discourse is that I think sneering at adulting also betrays an ignorance of the fact that there are actually people who have a more difficult time accomplishing so-called normal tasks than the average able-bodied, mentally healthy person. Young people who have physical and mental limitations are being more vocal about the difficulty of adulting. This, again, comes across as whining to some people. This, like many other things, comes I think from a lack of compassion. People think that their experiences are universal and that what was or wasn’t hard for them is the same across the board for all people. People also tend to defend their own choices by labeling others as ‘wrong’ or ‘bad’ in order to validate themselves, when really there is rarely just one right way to do something.

Adulting is hard and the emperor is naked

One of my favourite stories is “The Emperor’s New Clothes” because it illustrates such an observable concept: that people will stay quiet when they feel uncomfortable in order to not be thought foolish. I consider calling attention to adulting to be like this story. Other people might feel anxious about growing into adults and accepting new responsibilities but just not say anything, fearing that no one else feels the same way (they don’t see the emperor’s clothes but don’t speak up). Pointing out adulting is like admitting that the emperor is naked. Maybe I’m wrong and most people find a transition into adulthood to be no sweat. Maybe they don’t claim that it’s difficult to adult because they don’t think it’s difficult. Or they do and just aren’t admitting it, which I think is more likely. I can see the amount of social pressure there is to not say anything to differentiate oneself from the norm.  Saying you don’t feel like an adult is differentiating oneself from the norm, and it can be scary.


If the word ‘adulting’ is in your vocabulary, I don’t think you have anything to worry about. ‘Being an adult’ is a vague concept that is hard, or even undesirable, to achieve. Calling attention to that fact doesn’t make you foolish.

P.S. This all ties in with another post that is brewing about judging people based on the prestige of their job. Stay tuned!

P.P.S. The title of this post is taken from an Andrea Gibson poem called ‘I Sing the Body Electric; Especially When My Power Is Out.’

discussion questions

  1. Do you use the word ‘adulting’? Why or why not?
  2. Is it insightful or silly to use the word?
  3. Do you want to be an adult?
  4. Do you feel like an adult? Why or why not?

toward the smell of cotton candy

A Softer World is my favourite comic, web or otherwise. It’s not updated anymore, but its memory lives on in its archives. The format is simple: three panes, one or more photographs (sometimes it’s the same photograph cropped differently in each pane), and some text in a typewriter font. There is no plot, though there are some recurring characters and definitely some recurring themes. The text can be thoughtful, philosophical, funny, bitter, or all of the above.

My favourite edition of the comic is titled ‘he had a trustworthy smile.‘ It speaks to my soul with its combination of weighty (nuclear war) and whimsical (carnivals). (The first two panels are cars driving in a tunnel and say, ‘After the war, the fallout drove us underground. “Follow the tunnels toward the light,” our president said. The final frame is a close-up of a carousel horse and continues the quote: ‘Toward the smell of cotton candy.’) I’m interested in post-apocalyptic stories and love all things carnival: cotton candy, caramel apples, carousels, Ferris wheels, balloons, etc. This comic excites my imagination with thoughts of a secret carnival beneath the earth standing as a stark contrast to the bleak world above. It even represents hope to me: having the grim reality of nuclear war greeted with the news that there is a hidden haven waiting for you sounds pretty incredible to me.

This isn’t the only edition that deals with hidden worlds—the title comes from the third installment, which starts out, ‘In the caves behind my house I found a softer world.’ Then there’s number 107, where mirrors are broken in an attempt to climb into another world. These desperate searches for another reality really hit me in the heart, even though I may not agree with the man in number 3’s reasoning or have the same experience as the bemasked inhabitants of number 107. I grew up loving Alice in Wonderland, which obviously also involves another world that is similar yet markedly different. I think I am always trying to create that softer world for myself. I know I won’t find one in a cavern or underground tunnel, so I try and surround myself, physically and online, with my own reality. It’s my safeguard against the harsh realities of life. I do try and confront the truth as often as is healthy—I’m not drowning it out altogether. I just need a reprieve sometimes.

Inspired by the final frame of my favourite one, I snapped a few shots of a carousel and then a Ferris wheel for good measure. I just got this camera and was experimenting with the exposure triangle. I was especially interested in the motion of light, and I found a few locales that sang to my carnival-loving soul.


This next one is called Carousel Delirium. I used a longer exposure time and slowly rotated the camera. Incidentally, “delerium” is one of my favourite words.


Here are some with crisp lighting and shorter exposures:




And another one with a longer exposure to imply movement.


Moving on to the Ferris wheel!




Discussion questions:

  1. Do you have a favourite A Softer World panel?
  2. What’s your favourite part of a carnival?
  3. Do you want to find a softer world?
    1. How would it be different?
    2. Where would you look?

The Scream

Below is a poem I recently wrote, “The Scream.” Above is a companion painting I made afterward. Edvard Munch’s painting of the same name was a partial inspiration. Both the painting and poem represent a departure from the kind of work I have done before, which has been heavily edited and polished. I tried to write in a more stream-of-consciousness manner and did not edit the poem after I quickly wrote it. The painting, too, was done in this manner—quickly, without fixing it up. I think I have a lot of filters for my expression, and I am trying to express myself more frankly with less fear.

The painting and poem are more emotional and less philosophical than previous things I have shared. I am nervous to share them because of this, but I figure the emotional content is nothing to be ashamed of and it would be good for me to speak and share with fewer cumbersome filters. Make of them what you will! And as always, thanks for reading.

To scream is to push out the white elastic goo of your ribcage

To push your face between them, mouth open à la Munch.

To pull them down like taffy, escaping, entangled.


Swirling goo wrapping around you

Around your neck, a garrote

Screaming, begging, crying, pleading, murmuring, gnashing, wailing


A shrill piercing shriek echoing from the roots

Through the trunks to the leaves of trees in the forested world

A green carpet trembling, a rumbling of foreboding.


The world shrinks like a rotting apple, creased and wrinkled

The seas overflow and drown the tops of trees

The moon pulls away.


Someone is laughing,

A hoarse, mad laugh.

He is a face floating, zig zagging up through the space of the air

Without Vernunft.


The sleep of reason produces monsters.


In a chest of dazzling, glittering jewels

There is a cockroach, scuttling to the surface.

The lid snaps shut.

Everything is hidden.


I have no more in me to tell.


The sleep of reason produces monsters.


Discussion questions:

  1. Do you have filters for your expression? Too many, too few, or just the right amount?
  2. What does Munch’s The Scream mean to you?
  3. Do you prefer art that is more polished or more rough around the edges?

Magic Shadow Show

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam was recommended to me by a friend as we were polkaing at a Sadie Hawkins dance. The English translation by Fitzgerald, though the most popularly referenced, has been described as “freewheeling.” The spirit of the original is supposedly preserved without being a literal translation. I think it’s interesting that the text is part translation, part creation.

I don’t know all of the details of how much of the original text was preserved—I know that the original was also in quatrains (“Rubaiyat” itself means “quatrains”), but I don’t know if, for example, the rhyme scheme is the same. In other translations, the rhyme scheme is either AABB or AAAA, but in Fitzgerald’s, it’s AABA. I actually really enjoy this rhyme scheme because it feels like a doubling back, a surprise reverse: the third line has a different rhyme, and so you expect that the last line will then rhyme with it (AABB), but it then actually refers back to the first two lines. It provides an interesting effect and a sort of tension in a way: that third line is a maverick line with its own rhyme.

The above collage was inspired by my favourite stanza, number 46:

For in and out, above, about, below,

‘Tis nothing but a Magic Shadow-show

Play’d in a Box whose Candle is the Sun,

Round which we Phantom Figures come and go.


I’ve mentioned before that I especially love imagery and metaphors in poetry, and I think that is why this stanza, which has particularly rich examples of both, stands out to me. I also like the word “phantom” (and similar words, like “spectre” and “phantasmagorical”). The stanza also brings up ideas of subjective and fallible perceptions of reality (most people probably wouldn’t say that life is only a shadow show, but are they right or just clinging to illusions?) and the very nature of existence.

I also included another translation of the same quatrain plus a different quatrain that I like:

Would you that spangle of Existence spend

About THE SECRET—quick about it, Friend!

A Hair perhaps divides the False and True—

And upon what, prithee, may life depend?

This one I like because the questions it poses are interesting: How important is it to find the Meaning of Life and is it even possible? What is Truth and how do you even find it? Does THE SECRET, the meaning of existence, itself exist? What value is there in searching for it? Also, on a less existential note, it uses another word I like, “spangle.”


The collage also features some dictionary pages with relevant words; cut-outs of some pictures from one edition of the book; and some splashes of gold, purple, and blue paint. I try to make art intuitively without trying too hard to make an audience feel a specific thing. I like creating unintentional juxtapositions that nevertheless do create some sort of meaning. This combination of paper scraps, when I look at it now, gives me the feeling of a flurry of thought (all of the different texts) and vivaciousness (the brightly coloured paint and thoughts of seizing the day that the poem can inspire despite its sometimes fatalistic sounding lines) with a touch of serenity (the sleeping figure and thoughts of ceasing to be overly concerned about an inherent meaning to life but instead choosing to simply live).

Discussion questions

1. What is your interpretation of the featured quatrains?

2. Is life but a magic shadow show?

3. Upon what, prithee, may life depend?




Let me thy vigils keep ‘mongst boughs pavillion’d

Here are some snapshots of flowering trees I took with my instant film camera at a local park. I had seen the flowering trees from the road and wanted a closer look. As I walked alone around the gigantic park, the first lines of Keats’s poem “O Solitude! if I must with thee dwell” came to mind: “O Solitude! if I must with thee dwell,/Let it not be among the jumbled heap/Of murky buildings….”


When I lived in Utah, spring seemed to mean more because of its contrast with the bleak winter months (in comparison to southern California, where seasons don’t differ very much); colourful blooms peaking out of the snow made me smile and were a welcome change to the uniformity of winter. I love flowers and greenery and I missed them during winter, so springtime rolling around always made me happy.

These trees reminded me of the ornamental pear trees in Utah with their showy white blooms. Although they didn’t appear after a snowy winter, they were a reminder of that excitement I would feel when the pear trees and other plants would start blooming again.


I lay under one of the flowering trees to get a photo of the branches standing out against the brilliant blue sky. Later lines from the Keats poem seemed appropriate: “let me thy vigils keep/’Mongst boughs pavillion’d.” I love how the light made silhouettes of the branches and made the colour contrasts more dramatic.


I didn’t intend mimicry when I took it, but the next photo reminds me of Van Gogh’s  Almond Blossoms. I think it’s kind of neat that it’s like a real life version of a painting, like the painting is coming to life.


Has someone doused the light of the moon?

The following is a poem that I wrote recently. I have never publicly shared my poetry, so this is a new experience. I often have thoughts simultaneously that are polar opposites of each other, and I am rarely sure which one is the accurate view. The ones I’m thinking right now are about the legitimacy of the following poem: I have a desire to share it, yet I still wonder if in reality it’s awful. That’s me just being honest about this new experience–because I feel odd just posting a poem without sharing my misgivings–and not a plea for compliments!

I think the rhetorical devices I treasure most in poetry are metaphor and imagery. And I love economy of phrase, the power that can be packed into a short amount of words. This poem was an attempt to use those features. One thing I strongly object to is the idea that a work has One True Meaning, and so as not to colour your reading of it before the fact, I will explain a bit more about my intentions after the poem. Without further ado:


Has someone doused the light of the moon?

Has it tumbled from its perch in the sky and splashed into the sapphire sea?

Is it bobbling along the waves now, submerged and then revealed like the finale of a magic trick?

Have the fires in the lanterns gone out?

Did a shivering wind waver through them until it was dark?

With a sweeping gesture, did the sable cloak of a lonely nocturnal traveler extinguish them?


Who has taken away the glassiness of the waves, the glittering water?

And where are the stars that flickered in the sky?

Are they slumbering under the plush black velvet of the night?


How can we go on?

Must we try?

The feeling I wanted to portray in this poem is the bewilderment felt when something you thought was a constant turns out to be ephemeral. I wanted to capture the shock of something dependable crumbling before you. A fact you once accepted turning out to be false, for example, could be as disorienting as the moon falling from the sky, or the stars being extinguished. Having to change bedrock beliefs about the world can be like sitting in the darkness after the fires from many lanterns were suddenly were snuffed.

I think the format was inspired by a couple of poems: “Pioneers! O Pioneers!” by Walt Whitman and “Kaspar Ist Tot” by Hans Arp, mainly because of the use of questions. I imagine someone concerned and nervous asking them, looking for some sort of reassurance. Perhaps the questioner seems to the people they are asking to be imagining the distress–maybe the people they are asking haven’t seen that the moon is gone. Perhaps they aren’t even aware enough of the moon phases to know that the moon should be up in the sky right now.

I think everyone (hopefully) has felt this bewilderment. I say “hopefully” not because I enjoy other people’s suffering but because I think regularly critically examining your deeply held beliefs is healthy. To me, perceiving things as accurately as possible is a priority, which requires frequent skepticism. No one starts out knowing everything, and we are constantly absorbing new information–information that can contradict what we previously thought. I don’t value knowing something without reservations as much as I value the ability and humility to amend beliefs with new information. I don’t want to get stuck in the mire of confirmation bias, so that means regularly experiencing the discomfort that I tried to express in the above poem.

Discussion questions

How do you personally avoid confirmation bias?

What’s a deeply held belief you have changed in the past year?

How can we go on? Must we try?

On Living Authentically in the Digital Age

Whom are we trying to impress?

I’m not the first one to point out that glossy social media photos can be misleading. People show off the highlights of their lives and omit the struggles and woes, which leads to an unbalanced and inaccurate view of a person’s life. Now, I understand why not everyone would want to broadcast their problems: our contacts on social media are not always bosom buddies, and no one wants to be blamed for being a “downer.” But I think that with the right audience, through the right medium, being honest about struggles can be a way to connect with and reassure others.  I hope that by being honest about our feelings and struggles, other people can realize that they are not alone and that they have resources and people to turn to. I want to break free of this mould of portraying oneself inaccurately for the approval of others.

Some people are more comfortable sharing what they like without an intense fear of judgement, whether in person through speech or on social media. I am not one of those people, and if you aren’t either, then this post is especially for you. I’ve caught myself worrying about how Facebook friends whom I am not close to outside of the website are going to perceive my posts. I’ve realized why I worry about what those fringe acquaintances will think of what I post: unlike my close friends, whom I talk to regularly about my life in between the highlights, they don’t have any other context for what’s going on in my life. They see the infrequent posts I make but nothing in between. No wonder I feel insecure about them seeing what I post if what I post is all they have to go on. It has to represent me accurately and give enough information without being oversharing. 

But we’ve got to impress those people we haven’t spoken to in years, right? Who wants to look at boring photos? We don’t want people to just scroll past our posts–that’s not validating. But really, who actually wants to look at boring photos? The people who actually care about us, and whom we are close to. If someone doesn’t care about your day-to-day life, why are you even trying to impress them? I understand that we value companionship, so anything that seems to repel that seems unfavorable. But we can find people who love and support us without adjusting our personal expression. We can portray an authentic view of how things really are for us without fear of being judged.

Highlights and #liveauthentic

At the time of writing this post, there were 9,855,195 entries on Instagram of the hashtag #liveauthentic. #Liveauthentic should ostensibly label photos that break through to the authentic, past the veneer of social media phoniness. But when browsing the photos with this label, I don’t see that. I see heavily staged photos and fantastical views that seem anything but quotidien. Maybe I’ve got it all wrong and that kind of authenticity–accurate depictions of one’s life without the posturing for show–isn’t actually what #liveauthentic is about: maybe it is supposed to label instances where one sets out to do something out of the ordinary and achieves that. A photo of a stunning vista in the mountains or the Louvre in the rain would fit with that.

At any rate, #liveauthentic is vague enough to be able to mean a lot of things. It seems to have lost its focus, if it ever had one (I don’t know the history of its inception or rise in popularity, only how it is now). Is it supposed to be about authentic, everyday life? Then people seem to have misused it, or used it dishonestly, by showing extraordinary events in their lives; it’s lying and saying, “Yes, I do things like this every day.” My guess is a photo adorned with this hashtag is supposed to show who the poster really is, and that is impossible when photos are so heavily processed, like processing food and as a result taking out its nutritional value. You end up with an empty ideal (authenticity). The hashtag seems emblematic to me of the phoniness of social media posts.

I have a hunch that sharing only highlights, or displaying out-of-the-ordinary events as everyday occurrences, might sometimes come from our habit of idolizing other people and their lives and then following their example. People with the most followers aren’t usually posting “boring” things that everyone does: they “curate” their photos. When the people we follow are posting certain kinds of photos, our response is to post those kinds of photos too. It also seems comforting to convince ourselves that a certain level of perfection is achievable: we put certain people on pedestals and somehow believe that their lives are as ideal as they seem. Because if that is true, maybe we can someday have a life as fantastic as theirs. And until we do achieve such a fantastic life, we feel the need to portray our lives as if we are already at that level, and it becomes a cycle.

At any rate, sharing only the highlights of our lives is a common occurrence today. Sharing highlights is all well and good, but I don’t want want to share them to the exclusion of a more honest portrayal of my life. I don’t want to feel like someone thinking ill of me because a post I make is “too depressing” is the worst thing in the world. Let people scroll past what I write if it doesn’t interest them. I don’t want to waste my time trying to impress those people. I want to live authentically, but not #liveauthentic.

Living authentically means, to me, to be honest about my experiences–positive and negative.  I want to be open, but I do plan on being selective about on what platforms I share. One of those platforms is this blog. Its purpose is partly to have an outlet to share my experiences, for those who are interested, in the hopes of connecting with and creating support for people. Although, truthfully, it is even difficult for me to share these blog posts on Facebook in the event that I annoy someone with such “shameless plugs.” But I try and remember what I said above: there will be people who will actually be glad I shared because they are actually interested in my life. The people whom it annoys can just unfollow me or scroll past–and that’s not the end of the world.

An example: “Don’t let it set in.”

Several of my (unrelated) friends once shared this image on Facebook around the same time, and I immediately loved it. (It is a series of drawings of a humanoid figure doing the different listed activities. It says, “Shop for a new tie.  Make macaroni. Do cardio. Don’t let the existential dread set in. Don’t let it set in [closeup of the figure’s sweating face]. Vacuum the rug.”) I don’t know the exact reason these friends shared it–whether it was meant to be lightheartedly funny, or satirical, or darkly humourous–but it clearly struck a chord (if anyone who shared the image is also reading this, feel free to fill me in on why you did!). I related because, essentially, existential dread is a real feeling for me, and I often feel like I’m scrambling to find activities to distract myself from it. I fight hard to keep up those daily tasks, but that dread sometime hovers.

I could be interpreting this completely incorrectly, but this little comic seemed emblematic of an “appropriate” way to share distress over Facebook. It’s pretty simple and it’s humourous. You don’t have to elaborate on how and why you feel existential dread. It isn’t oversharing.

I’m not saying that it’s a bad thing to share distress in this way, if Facebook isn’t the place you want to live without filters. If you want to elaborate, you can always talk one-on-one with someone whom you are closer to. Maybe that’s better than figuratively screaming into the void in the chance that you will hear an echo.

One more example

When I was first in the throes of major depression and anxiety, I did post a note on Facebook called “I have anxiety and depression and just wanted to let you know.” I was struggling to find a way to talk about my experiences without being off putting. But I decided to write the note, which did have some details about how I was feeling, because I was suffering by staying silent. Good did come out of that note. I might have turned some people off, but others kind of came out of the woodwork to message me and support me. I was just putting it out there to see if anyone was interested, and it turns out they were.


I don’t want to pander to the people who will just scroll past my posts. (To be clear, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being disinterested in what I have to say! It just seems like fighting a losing battle to use acquaintances like that as my target audience, which is what I seem to have been doing in the past.) I honestly don’t plan on posting much on places like Facebook (instead I’ll opt to write things here), but if I did, I would want to be OK with people unfollowing me or hiding my posts if they don’t like them.

Discussion questions

If you do not have the problem at the centre of this post (i.e. fear about acquaintances judging you), why do you think that is? What thought patterns do you think contribute to your attitude?

What is #liveauthentic supposed to mean?
What does #liveauthentic actually mean?

Who is your personal target audience on social media (e.g. close friends, acquaintances, strangers)? Do you like it that way?