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‘I Want to Be a Writer, But I Can’t Stop Wasting My Life on Instagram!’

Photo: Cappi Thompson/Getty Images

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Hi, Polly,

I’m 20, but I feel like my time to accomplish is running out. I know this sounds ridiculous, but please hear me out. I’ve always wanted to write, and I have — but all the wonderful, inspiring, labor-of-love type things I want to do I can’t, because I seemingly can’t keep myself from wasting hours of my day on Instagram.

Every day, when I wake up, it’s the first thing I reach for. When I’m anxious or sad (which is often), I open it … well, I would’ve said it was for inspiration, but the more I think about it, the more I’m just torturing myself with it. I look at all the cool artistic girls in L.A. or NYC and can’t help but hate myself for not being them. It’s like I’ve decided anything I could contribute to the world is worthless from the outset, and watching all these other girls be themselves is just proof I’ll never amount to anything. Each time I try to read a book, watch a movie, even the few occasions where I do attempt to write, the overwhelming urge to scroll Instagram arrives and I abide by it. Not to mention everyone around my age on there seemingly has their lives figured out, thereby making my self-image even more convoluted. This pattern has been a part of my life since some traumatic events in early adolescence, which I’m guessing has something to do with it, but no therapist I’ve been to or med I’ve tried has dulled or quieted this urge. I’ve tried deleting it from my phone, but all that’s caused me to do is find other ways to see it.

What does any of this mean, Polly? It must be my responsibility to let go of this, as I’ve seen you describe it in other answers, “religion of self-hatred,” but what are the steps? How do you regain creativity and a sense of self in the face of overwhelming opposition from your own brain?

Tortured

Dear Tortured,

You have to close the curtains and focus. Closing the curtains is tough because at first it feels like cutting off contact with the whole world. This is something that people who don’t use social media misunderstand about its appeal: It starts as an effort to connect. We want to reach each other. We want to see how other people are living, and we want to be seen by them. We want to be inspired by what other people have achieved, and we want to show our own work to the world: Look, I made scrambled eggs, they were delicious! Look, I read this article about climate change and I’m feeling depressed! Look, it’s raining here but I found this amazing coat at Goodwill. Does anyone else feel lonely and invisible right now? Can anyone hear me?

The trouble starts when you’re no longer just taking a casual glance outside to check the weather. Instead, you’re tumbling into an endless abyss that dissolves all sense of space and time. For some people, this takes the shape of reading every single scrap of news about how our democracy seems to be crumbling before our eyes. For others, this includes posting up-to-the-millisecond photos of themselves on Facebook, then drawing conclusions about their friends and acquaintances and former classmates based on their FB posts. For you, there’s some anointed gaggle of cool, creative women in L.A. and NYC that need to be monitored regularly. They seem to be bigger and brighter and more certain of their value than you could ever be. Witnessing their lives is inspiring, but it also steadily erodes your confidence in ways that you may not fully recognize, even now, even as you’re looking right at the problem and trying to solve it.

But it’s not hard to understand why social media kicks up so many feelings. It’s not hard to see why people get obsessed and trade in their real, mundane lives for the kaleidoscope of striving and pain and anguish and nice clothes and cute kids and picture-perfect vacations and political screeds and likes and unfollows and clashes and subtweets that lies waiting inside of their phones, every second of every day. After all, do you want to shut yourself off and sit in the dark and painstakingly build something with words that mostly makes you feel ineffectual and inadequate? Or do you want to dive into a colorful, angry, terrifying, thrilling realm of novelty and controversy and outrage and shiny gorgeous perfection that makes you forget that you exist at all? What’s better, being painfully aware of how inadequate you are or disappearing entirely?

So let’s start here: Your addiction to Instagram is not some sign that you’re incredibly weak and pathetic. It’s actually a clear reflection of the depth of your longing for a colorful, passionate, brilliant, inspired life. Look around on Instagram and Twitter in particular, and who do you see? People who want to share something essential about themselves. People who believe that the real world is cold and dull and strangely formal and fearful and passive and hopelessly restrictive. People who want to crack open the real world and find some space with more freedom, more vulnerability, more artistic wildness, more unabashed longing and sweetness and fire. Even the outspoken cynics and the jokers and the snipers and the trolls sometimes fit into this category. They’re emotional people who want to have a voice, and want to connect, but don’t know how to do it. I’ve spent my whole life wanting more from everyday interactions, everyday friendships, everyday romances. And social media can feel like a shortcut, a quick fix, a burst of bright light.

Forgive yourself for being obsessed. Social media is packed with smart, creative, openhearted people who want more from life than our culture seems prepared to provide. But you have to pay close attention to how social media functions in your life. When you use it as a way to escape your real life and real feelings, obviously it will start to eat you alive. And when something that’s not yours and not 100 percent real slowly starts to feel more real than your actual life, it can evolve into a way of hating yourself and proving to yourself that you’ll never amount to anything. What starts out inspiring turns into a weird ritual of self-hatred.

It’s strange that the same thing that feels inspiring and feels like connection can curdle into a means of bludgeoning yourself. Inspiring-yet-empty friendships or affairs with charismatic people who don’t actually give a fuck can curdle into self-hating religions in the same way. You started to get addicted to Instagram after some traumatic events in early adolescence; you escaped the harsh reality of your life by staring at windows into other people’s lives that seemed prettier and more exciting than yours. But like any addiction or obsession that isn’t built on true, real connection, this thing you used to escape harsh reality became its own harsh reality. It’s like when you’re young and lonely and you fantasize about love saving you from feeling so alone, and it builds into a fixation on a celebrity or someone who barely knows you exist. Even though you’re looking for a solution, you’re actually replicating the problem over and over again.

It takes a lot of work to stop this pattern from repeating itself. You think you’ve done it, and then some other shiny means of escape present themselves. Personally, I am heavy into escape. Sometimes it feels like it’s encoded in my DNA. But being into escape is often just code for being into Not Feeling Anything, or being into telling elaborate stories in which everyone is powerful and full-color except for me. Fantasy/non-reality is almost always a rejection of who you are and where you are and what you have right now.

So you have to do more than try to avoid social media or to avoid these odd exits out of your life or your consciousness. You can’t JUST tell yourself “Stop chasing self-hatred and rejection!” You have to make a firm commitment to reality itself. That means making a commitment to the sooty imperfection and disappointments and mundane half-rejections and snail’s-pace progress of real life.

So think about your own reality and how much it pains you to live within its disappointing boundaries. Examine your motives for wanting to escape it, too. You have to admit to yourself: “I want to be like these cool girls. I want to be impressive and live inside their pretty world.” Keep in mind, wanting this isn’t about FEELING one way or another. It’s not about impressing yourself, either. It’s about being something other people want. You imagine that would solve everything. You would achieve a flat, static state called HAPPY.

But happiness doesn’t feel like a static picture. It doesn’t feel like “Those people are envious of me.” Real happiness is a roller-coaster ride, because you’re still living inside your skin. You’re still alive and the world changes every second and there is still hard work to be done, no matter what.

You’re using Instagram as a justification for not doing a thing. “Instead of trying to write, I prefer to stop and remind myself that there is no reason to try, because I will never matter as much as these cool girls do. I want to let myself off the hook. I want to disappear. I don’t want to be reminded of my inadequacy. I want to slip into an abyss and forget myself for hours instead of facing my flaws and my resistance.”

But as a writer, the struggle to face your feelings of inadequacy will continue to exist even in a vacuum of social media. Sometimes the most skilled, unique, emotional writers are the ones who struggle with feelings of inadequacy the most. Their raw panic, their insistence on creating something that’s more than just adequate or acceptable, is a direct reflection of the depth of their emotional investment in the craft of writing. But any professional writer can tell you that the message that YOUR WORK IS SHIT doesn’t really go away. It’s just a sound your brain makes when you’re not feeling up to the tedious and impossible task of trying to make your words better than they were the day before. Having high standards often sounds, in a writer brain, like YOU ARE A FUCKING IDIOT and NO ONE CARES WHAT YOU WRITE ANYWAY.

Your love for writing, though, reflects your soul’s deep need to live in reality, to stop escaping, to tell the whole truth in a way that feels gorgeous and transcendent instead of just sad and scary. Don’t stop believing in that. Close the curtains and listen to your soul telling you what it wants from you. (Whew, I could almost smell incense burning for a second there.)

And now let me now say something about the artistic, cool girls of L.A. and NYC who post on Instagram constantly: These people are not providing you with a road map to anything. They might be writing incredible stuff or making amazing art. They might have brilliant ideas. Their accounts might be gorgeous and inspiring and artistic in ways that make you want to dance in the streets and write prose and breathe in pure light. But you are still being consciously shielded from the pain and loneliness and grime and roughness of their real, lived, mundane lives. These women have disappointing friendships and bad boyfriends and they get terrible headaches and they can’t sleep and they feel useless and lonely, just like anyone else. They break out and get mud on their white pants. They feel invisible. They wake up depressed and can’t think of anything to do but post that cool photo they took at the party or the museum the day before.

I’m not saying that they’re superficial or that they’re lying to you. They’re just using an app in the way it was intended to be used.

But I am saying this: Don’t be a cool artistic girl of Instagram. Close the curtains and be an uncool artist in the dark instead. Because the real beauty of this world is all mixed in with the grime and the roughness and the mud and the bad headaches. You could leave the curtains open and you might still create something worthwhile, but it would invariably embody the false cheer of the wider culture: light and pretty, uplifting and sweet, all forced smiles packed full of bleached white teeth. Have you listened to Taylor Swift’s latest album? Do you want your art to be piped full of escapist buttercream fluff, only to feel slightly constipated and insincere underneath it all? Or do you want your art to dig into the meat of a lived life, which includes the heartbreak and the stillness and the anguish of refusing to look away from the ugly, gorgeous, ragged truth?

Look at Lorde instead: Even when she writes about partying, she can’t leave out the part where the car crashes and everyone is smeared across the road. Even when she writes about getting high, she asks, “But what will we do when we’re sober?” Even when she writes about being in love, she admits that she’s afraid that she’s too much for anyone to love her completely. My point is not that Lorde is a better human or better artist than Taylor Swift. I think they’re both pretty goddamn impressive. (Okay fine you know I prefer Lorde, but this isn’t a competition!) My point is that an artist who is completely upfront and frank about her conflicted state tends to speak to us more directly than one who wants to convince us that she is cooler than she really feels at any given moment. Taylor Swift will find her path, but she’s going to have to dig deeper and be more honest with herself and close the goddamn curtains in order to get there. Her latest album is all about reacting to what other people think of her, and then trying hard to make that reaction sound triumphant and powerful. You can make great art out of that kind of reactive rage, but you have to be painfully honest about how conflicted you are. (See also: Dry, Lemonade, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Damn).

Likewise, the cool girls of Instagram can get a quick fix by showing us the most beautiful angles on their lives, but true bravery and lasting art spring from the ability to show the whole picture without making us turn away. Seduction and glory are still in the mix! Romance and horror, joy and rage, are dancing cheek to cheek. You don’t have to go goth or become fucking Banksy to tell the whole truth and make it intoxicating.

But you do need to live in reality. You need a relationship with yourself. You need to live in the dark. You need to breathe in your own truest desires, without the poisoning influence of people whose careers include efforts to seem shinier than any human being could ever be. I’m not telling you to be gloomier or to CONFESS MORE. I’m not telling you to write sad things or to ONLY dig into your ugliest corners. I am telling you that the longer you look into that magical window in your phone, the farther you will drift from the heart of who you are. The heart of who you are is what will make you a true writer, a true artist, a true grown adult woman who knows exactly what she wants from this world and isn’t afraid to stand up and say it, out loud, even when it’s fucked up or off-brand or unappealing. And as an artist and a user of social media and a person in general, it will also give you the courage NOT to show the world everything at once. Because sometimes holding back a little, keeping a little for yourself, and treasuring it in the absence of an audience, is even more important than what you show.

Close the curtains and trust in what you love. If you love buttercream fluff, spread it thick. But be patient. You are not falling behind. You have plenty of time. Refuse to take your cues from that magical window. Refuse to imagine what will impress other people. Seduce them into loving exactly what you have to give instead. Savor your craft and enjoy yourself. Impress yourself, seduce yourself, belong to yourself in the dark, and you will be a writer, an artist, a human being with a strong, clear, true voice.

To do these things, you don’t need to be better and stronger and more brilliant than you are in this moment. You are already exactly who you need to be. Live here, in reality, and create from it. Start here and end here. This is the grime and the pain and the anger and the loneliness of living that will never leave you. This is the glory and the sweetness and the overwhelming joy that will never leave you. You don’t need anything else but this.

Polly

Order the Ask Polly book, How to Be a Person in the World, here. Got a question for Polly? Email askpolly@nymag.com. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.

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‘I Can’t Stop Wasting My Life on Instagram!’