For the past four years, I have been off all social media. There wasn’t a huge incident or anything that prompted this, it was just a bunch of little things that started a domino effect of sorts. I was 23 and had just broken up with a guy I’d dated for a couple months. I didn’t want to see photos of him and his friends on my feed; I didn’t want to go through the process of deleting the photos of us together. Granted, these weren’t things that I HAD to do, but it made me feel crazy even thinking about making those decisions. Regardless of what I did or didn’t delete, I was embarrassed that my ex-boyfriend from college (among other friends and acquaintances) would see the new lack of photos and put it together that we broke up. Yet another failed relationship.
On top of all that, I was sick of reading the racist political rants some of my relatives posted daily, I was annoyed with all the engagement and baby photos, I was tired of trying to restrain myself from stalking other ex-boyfriends and women I envied. I was just done. It started with me deleting my Facebook, then my Instagram, then Twitter, LinkedIn, Snapchat, and even Venmo followed. My friends wondered if I was dead. I told them I just needed some time to purge myself. Social media fueled my anxiety and made me uncomfortable, this weird public diary of sorts left for random people to gawk at. It was hard at first, being off everything, but I quickly learned to love it. It helped me focus more on myself instead of what everyone around me was doing.
To my friends, I am the “off the grid” one that they have to send screenshots of Facebook invites to, that they have to reimburse with cash since I’m not on Venmo. To them, it seems like an extreme measure, but they just roll their eyes, laugh, and chalk it up to me being me. Occasionally when I tell people I’m not on any social media, I’ll get a “Good for you!” But more often I’ve found my lack of social media makes people suspicious, in particular when I’m dating someone new. They think something really horrible must have happened for me to go to such a measure, that I’m hiding something. But I’m not hiding any big, terrible secret. What I can identify as the “reason” is harder to explain.
I was adopted from Korea into a white family when I was a baby. I grew up in predominantly white, small towns. I struggled a lot with my identity growing up (and still do, but to a lesser extent) and was a very shy, timid kid who was bullied and found it hard to fit in. My whole existence became centered on shaping myself into someone my peers would find likable. For example, if I started hanging out with a group of friends that wore a particular kind of clothing, I would beg my mom to take me shopping and fill my closet with clothes that matched the style they were wearing. Then when I started hanging out with a new group of friends, I would throw those clothes away and buy new ones. My parents would get angry with me whenever they would find large trash bags of things I was trying to throw away, which was often. They didn’t understand what I was doing, and to a certain extent, I didn’t either. I was constantly rearranging my room, buying, discarding, replacing — my belongings and people in my life. This has been a theme that has followed me into adulthood, and when I had social media, I was paranoid that it reflected this pattern, and it brought on a sense of shame when I tried to camouflage it. When I removed myself from that world, I felt safe in my own private life and I could deal with myself one-on-one. Some might say this is healthy, but sometimes I ask myself, am I just hiding? Is my absence from social media really just a huge red flag to everyone that I have major issues?
Recently a friend of mine encouraged me to make a LinkedIn profile. I was explaining to him that while I don’t mind my current job, it’s not something I am passionate about or see myself doing long term. “You are missing out on opportunities by not having a profile,” he said. “As a headhunter, I would know. That’s the main thing they use.” I tried to explain my reasoning for not being on anything, and he stared at me, trying but failing to hide his exasperation. “You’re not making sense. You just have to make a LinkedIn. You don’t have to get on anything else.” But I find that I simply cannot. It stresses me out too much, to the point I feel nauseous. “What are you afraid of?” he asked, and I couldn’t give him an answer.
Polly, is my absence from social media helpful for my anxiety and neurosis, or is it simply a product of those things? I don’t know anymore.
Off the Grid
Dear Off the Grid,
You’re my personal hero. You know yourself, and you’ve made good choices based on that self-knowledge. Moreover, you’ve made a decision that is unpopular with your peers and out of step with current trends, and for that alone, I applaud you.
Of course, making an off-trend choice is the same thing as being ahead of the times. At some point, more people will turn against social media just like you have. It’ll be a movement. It will be common practice to stay the fuck away from it. There will be positive names for this, at first, and everyone will celebrate being off the grid as a lifestyle choice: The Unplugged. Anti-socials. Unmediateds. Then those positive names will start to take on distasteful connotations, the way the words hippie and yuppie and hipster now incite ambivalent reactions. But the bottom line is this: You’re ahead of the curve. Own it!
Is your absence from social media helpful for your anxiety or is it a product of your anxiety? Why can’t it be both? My writing is helpful for my anxiety, and it’s also a product of my anxiety (I feel compelled to express myself endlessly because I’m an anxious person). Writing is good for me, sure, but my chosen profession is still a clear reflection of what a type-A neurotic I am. Likewise, my marriage to a similarly oversensitive human is helpful to my oversensitive nature and it’s also a product of that nature. We understand each other well, but it’s also sometimes difficult to communicate peacefully with someone who’s just as oversensitive as I am. You can see your rejection of social media as valiant, or you can see it as weak, but it’s probably a little of both. Your most passionate decisions are usually a reflection of both your best and worst personality traits.
So you’re too strong and independent for social media, but you’re also too fearful and weak for it. Doesn’t that describe every human alive? In my opinion, we’re all too vibrant and robust and special to boil ourselves down to the boastful faux-earnest posts and vainglorious images of Facebook, and we’re also far too defensive and needy and insecure to tolerate other people’s grandiloquent posts and posed images. We’re all way too smart and too complex to try to express the full breadth of our perspectives and emotions on Twitter, and we’re also way too stupid and shallow and lazy to understand other people’s tweets as the inadequate, incomplete snapshots of their humanity that they are. We’re too glib and sloppy with our words to avoid pissing someone off on social media, but we’re also too easily triggered by strangers and their lack of understanding of our unique circumstances.
I can tell you that personally I’m way too brilliant and complicated to waste my time on social media, and I’m also way too envious and pathetic to tolerate it, and I’m also too restless and needy to avoid it. I love social media when I feel like I can reach out to someone across the globe and really connect. I love being able to type a few simple words about believing in yourself and celebrating your freakish nature and surviving another day on this doomed planet. I also love tweeting about stupid shit. A lot. But I struggle not to bite back when someone misunderstands my tweet, or takes issue with something that I see as innocuous, mostly because I am a flinty dickhead. The other day I wrote something that amounted to “Carpe diem!” and someone was pissed at me for not taking her anxiety into account when I wrote it. I wanted to say, BUT I’M ANXIOUS TOO, WHY ELSE DO YOU THINK I’M TYPING WORDS INTO THIS POINTLESS MACHINE?
Social media holds up a mirror to all of our strengths and our weaknesses. Those of us who love that mirror a lot also hate that mirror for equal and opposite reasons: We are showoffs who feel a ton of shame. We are anxious enough to engage and anxious enough to fear engagement. We are people-pleasers who also fear disapproval like nothing else under the sun.
Lately, the cumulative effects of being on social media for years have been haunting me. I’ve noticed my attention waning. I’ve noticed my patience waning. I’ve noticed that I don’t look at my kids’ faces enough. And I’ve noticed that I’ve suddenly, out of the blue, become more thin-skinned than I’ve been in years. But just like your anxiety, which is both a good reason to stay off social media and the reason you can’t handle social media, my thin skin is a product of my enormous, bloated ego and also the result of finally deciding, once and for all, that I deserve to stand up for myself. I’ve spent decades thinking it was unseemly to take up space or be openly arrogant, as a woman, as a people-pleaser, as a human, and I just don’t care anymore. I want to say a few words. I want to tell you some things. I welcome disapproval. Why not? I am an opinionated, garrulous woman, and the world disapproves already.
But I’d also like to avoid taking a fighting stance at this particular moment in human history. I am strong enough and brave enough to start a fight and weak enough to take every single bruise and injury personally. I am courageous enough to show my full self online, and I’m also moody enough to not be able to handle every dimension of that overexposure at this particular juncture.
The point is, as with any social realm, you have to recalibrate and reconnoiter all the time. You have to be sensitive to your own needs, and you have to be as sensitive as you can to the needs of others. We all have the option to back away and protect ourselves, repeatedly — not just in social media but in our social interactions in general. That’s not weakness, it’s sanity.
Those of us who grew up in disordered families often use social media to create shadow armies we can fight. Remember last week when I said that I realized, at some point, that I see rejection and abandonment everywhere? Social media amplifies that. And when I’m no longer writing words for you, the readers of this column, whom I imagine as discerning yet mildly amiable and guided by open hearts, and instead I’m writing words for some far less discerning, impatient, aggressive tl;dr shadow army on Twitter? Big surprise, my writing suffers.
Social media can slowly lead you away from yourself, make you feel paranoid, and feed you the illusion that your life is flat and colorless compared to other lives. It’s like the adolescent past you describe (which unnerved you for a lot of very good reasons): Before you know it, you’re ditching last year’s wardrobe for a whole new one. And the more time you spend on social media, the harder it is to track how far off your chosen path you’ve traveled. Your compass gets warped. Your instincts become dulled.
It sounds like you don’t want to give some imaginary shadow army undue influence over your choices. And please note, the shadow army IS IMAGINARY. That’s the whole point. There are countless opportunities for us to project our issues and our damage onto every (largely imaginary, incomplete) interaction. We’ll read a few tweets, race through a few FB posts and comments, scroll past a day’s worth of Instagram, and keep building that imaginary shadow army from it. The shadow army will come to curate our thoughts, curate our identities, curate our art, curate our choices. I, for one, need to murder that shadow army every single day so that I don’t constantly do battle with it — or worse, slowly but surely mold myself into some insipid shape just to please it.
So who cares if your friend thinks that LinkedIn is some make-it-or-break-it platform that no professional human can live without? It’s beyond obvious that for you, the costs are not worth the benefits.
And I say RIGHT THE FUCK ON to that. Stay off the fucking grid. More people are likely to join you there. And if they don’t, they should. We all need to look into each other’s faces more. We all need to slow down and enjoy every single minute we can on this endangered planet. We all need to stop anxiously scanning some imaginary realm for a fix, and find our peace in the real world instead.
It also sounds like you still socialize and have friends, so why worry about it? There are plenty of other ways to connect with old friends. Lately, I’ve been trying to write long letters to close friends who I admire and care about. Some of these letters are written in pen, on paper. Others are rambling emails, packed full of weird digressions and ideas, sent to friends whom I really want to encourage to indulge themselves with weird digressions and ideas in turn. I want to connect, and I want to do it long-form, and also face-to-face. I need new ways to reach other people.
You can honor your current untrendy rejection of social media and still find new ways to connect. That’s the kind of recalibration and rebalancing that people like you and me, who are both suggestible and anxious, need in our lives. We have to honor our needs without cutting ourselves off completely. We have to protect ourselves while also being brave.
So the next time someone wants to take a choice that makes you feel stronger and portray it as something that makes you weak, I hope you’ll be ready to say a few words to that person, words like “WHAT ARE YOU AFRAID OF, MOTHERFUCKER? A world where your career and your brand aren’t everything? A world where you’re forced to stand exactly where you are and live with yourself, free of distractions? Because that’s the world that I prefer.”
You’ve always seen yourself as a follower, but by knowing yourself well and treating yourself with care, you’ve slowly become a leader. Maybe it’s time to honor that. Maybe it’s time to celebrate it.
Order Heather Havrilesky’s new book, What If This Were Enough?, here. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.
All letters to firstname.lastname@example.org become the property of Ask Polly and New York Media LLC and will be edited for length, clarity, and grammatical correctness.