Practicing emotional mindfulness in an era of online facades
Our society encourages us to demonstrate the value of our lives. Social media—particularly Snapchat and Instagram with “story” features that allow immediate sharing—perpetuates our impulse to perform our experiences for others, enabling us to diminish life into a series of moments we deem worthy of documentation. The potential result is the construction of an outer life, a version of the self who will resonate with people to whom we may only be virtually, superficially connected. But living a construction can distance us from who we truly are and keep us from knowing and engaging healthily with ourselves.
The pull of the worlds and personas we build for ourselves is strong; because we are always connected to these performative outlets, it may become hard to escape the divide between the performed and authentic self. The question becomes: how can we reconnect with the inner life and strip back the performative layers to tend to who we truly are? How can we remain self-aware and self-reflective, cultivating a dialogue within ourselves as rich and plentiful as the ones we try to forge with others?
A potentially healthy step is investment in “emotional intelligence,” or an awareness of the heart. An increasingly recognized part of the vocabulary with which we describe our lives, emotional intelligence refers to one’s ability to accurately perceive emotions and manage emotions, as well as utilize emotional awareness to broaden one’s perspective. Although cultivation is a lifelong process, literature on increasing emotional intelligence focuses on the difficult work of changing one’s mindset, which entails reducing negative thoughts by depersonalizing events and providing oneself with options rather than overinvesting emotionally in one outcome; engaging proactively rather than reactively with others; and strengthening oneself against breakage in the face of adversity by regarding trials as learning experiences rather than threats. According to a study by psychology professors Dr. Tamera R. Schneider and Steven Khazon, in collaboration with Air Force Research Laboratory Scientist Dr. Joseph B. Lyons, “emotional intelligence should confer benefits during stress [and] has been linked to actively coping with stressors, lower subjective work stress, and a beneficial moderator of the link between stress and health,” thereby increasing our overall resilience, or ability to cope with life’s obstacles.
The fact that cultivation of emotional intelligence is a deliberate and unending process inherently contradictory to the automatic nature of social media may cause the process of development to feel long and tiresome. But emotional intelligence can help us not only treat others with empathy and better acknowledge ourselves, but feel more empowered in the face of situations that may ordinarily make us feel powerless.
Another possible action to help us get in touch with ourselves is lesser known but equally valuable: self-reflection through “self-distancing,” or reflecting on one’s own experience with an objective, non-immersed perspective. When we experience difficult feelings, our instinct even from a young age may be to take a step back and make sense of the tribulation… but where we often tend to ruminate in the negative feelings of our past, self-distancing advocates viewing a situation impersonally and without blame, thereby avoiding fixation upon the immediate conflict and claiming emotional self-control. Studies have shown that self-distancing during reflection results in lower emotional reactivity because it focuses on making meaning of events rather than fixating on them. “Psychological distancing—from the self, the here, the now, or reality—allows us to mentally transcend the immediate, egocentric experience of a situation, a necessary step in conscious control,” says a study by psychology professors Dr. Angela Duckworth, Dr. Ethan Kross, and Dr. Rachel E. White. “Experiments have demonstrated the benefits of psychological distancing on a variety of self?control tasks in both adults and children.”
It is increasingly difficult to insulate ourselves in a society that insists upon claiming our attention. But again, the fact that the inverse relationship between self-distancing and emotional reactivity strengthens with age—meaning the more time we take to view things objectively and strengthen our perspective, the more able we are to ground ourselves emotionally—shows how time and commitment to wellness strengthens us, and how the persistence and patience required for self-care exists in stark contrast to the immediacy of our culture.
Being more self-aware can result in greater efforts to respect oneself and treat oneself with kindness, which generally results in a higher quality of life. We have become accustomed to using the term “self-esteem” in reference to the way we feel about ourselves; but studies have actually found that low self-esteem during adolescence correlates with poor mental health, future suicide attempts and withdrawal from construction of healthy, supportive social networks.
On the other end of the spectrum, attempts to raise self-esteem can lead to narcissism and general fixation upon the sometimes unreasonable standards to which we hold ourselves. A burgeoning, empirically differentiated alternative is “self-compassion,” operationally defined by Dr. Kristin Neff just over a decade ago as our quest to extend to ourselves the same kindness we extend to others, recognize that our challenges are part of the shared human experience, and mind our own thoughts and feelings.
According to Neff, “Self-compassion involves acting [compassionately] towards yourself when you are having a difficult time, fail, or notice something you don’t like about yourself. Instead of just ignoring your pain… you stop to tell yourself ‘this is really difficult right now,’ how can I comfort and care for myself in this moment?”
This practice is meant not only to encourage us to identify our own humanity and acknowledge our own suffering, but to shift attention from meeting standards and countering negative thoughts to respecting and appreciating ourselves and our thoughts as they are, allowing us to engage in life with less anxiety and more respect. In the midst of a society that projects constructed, seemingly perfect realities, circular comparison and negative self-talk run amok, and self-compassion can be difficult to practice… but to try is an act of self-care and something we all deserve.
As has been stated, all of these tools of self-care take time to cultivate, and are therefore contrary to the rapid nature of the social media-driven world to which we have become so accustomed. To be emotionally intelligent and self-compassionate, and to practice mindful self-distancing, are all difficult. But turning inward to build these skills is a step toward wellness, and a step toward getting in touch with a self we may easily tuck away when life gets performative. It is one thing to inhabit the world in the context of others, but a great and worthwhile challenge to do the hard work of inhabiting the self, occupying the space only we can take up in a meaningful, compassionate, and healthy way.
Mae McDermott is a first year writing major who doesn’t fuck with your bad vibes. You can reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org.