Leo Tolstoy famously observed it about families, but all happy individuals, too, are alike; each unhappy individual is, also, unhappy in its own way.
We live in a time were, using Instagram, Facebook and whatnot, many (young) people curate their lives: we present ourselves to the world as how we want to be seen.
And not as how we are.
Of course, the desire to make oneself look good is nothing new. However, thanks to technology, in 2019, we have more control over our appearance than ever.
It’s not just that we omit mention of anything but the greenest grass — we also use filters to make it look even greener.
In our culture, there a strong and peculiar, almost ethical, pressure to be happy. A moral duty to happiness. An obligation to constantly put up a radiant smile and show your far-too-white and attest to your fulfillment.
And there goes Instagram post #1 of the day.
We no longer relax to relax, but to recover so that we can be awesome tomorrow again. We no longer socialize to have fun, but to showcase how cool our lives are.
While this causes a lot of stress, we’ve gotten pretty skilled at tricking people into believing we’re feeling good and got it all figured out.
And so everyone thinks that everyone is strong and confident and happy and has the best life ever.
Except no one has.
No one has it all figured out
Among young people, suicide is on the rise.
Depression is, too.
We’re also becoming more lonely.
Why would this be?
I think it is because we focus on impressing others at the expense of relating to them.
“There’s clear evidence that [to impress people] the focus on money, fame, and image has gone up, and there’s also clear evidence that people who focus on money, fame, and image are more likely to be depressed and anxious.”
But, if you think about it, “focusing on fame and image” means that instead of setting our own standard, we let others define what we should care about. After all, these metrics depend solely on what other people think about us.
Hence we strive to mitigate judgment by others, and hide every part of your identity that, if other people would know or see it, you fear would make them reject you.
Summing up: aiming to avoid eliciting any reaction, is externally motivated perfectionism. Because it’s dictated by what other people think of you, it’s a recipe for disaster.
We want to control the opinions of other people by controlling how we appear to them.
However, there is often a big difference between how we present ourselves and how we truly are.
And oh boy, it would be really bad if people were to see through this act.
So we constantly walk on our toes to keep up appearances, lest our masks fall off.
And to avoid exposing our real selves to the judging eyes of our peers, we create a fake persona to take the blows for us.
Ironically, this quest to shield our true identities from the opinions of others is a fool’s errand.
First, you can’t do it.
People will find out and people will judge: protecting an image does not help to avoid the risk of rejection for who you are.
Second, you shouldn’t do it.
The quest to maintain a certain image is motivated by the need for approval.
We’re doing things because we believe those are the things we must to do impress others.
That’s the wrong intention:
Presenting yourself to the world as how you are not to favorably influence what others think of you means you prioritize other people’s opinions about you over your own opinion of you.
When we do that, we tell ourselves to value ‘other people not rejecting us’ over ‘embodying our identities’.
An expensive bargain.
The power of vulnerability
To recapitulate: I believe that the rise in loneliness, depression, and suicide flows out of the lack of meaningful relationships, which flows out of the hollow focus on impression-management.
To turn things around, we need to opt-out of the zero-sum game for social status.
The most important factor here is our way of relating to other people.
We conceptualize fellow persons as competitors to outperform and leave in awe of how fabulous our lives are. We must see them as similar human beings who are fighting their own battle instead.
Now, let’s ask the million-dollar question: what concrete change in behavior could help us in doing so?
I still have a lot to learn on this front, but I think one of life’s most important lessons is:
Learn to express, not impress
Impression builds a wedge. It distances you from those you talk to. Expression, on the other hand, builds a bridge.
I once read somewhere that vulnerability is incredible power.
As Tolstoy also wrote: “If you look for perfection, you’ll never be content.”