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  • Writer's pictureAudrey Tang

The looking glass selfie (online is not the best place to be seeking validation)

Updated: Jul 25, 2022

Charles Horton Cooley in 1902 spoke of "The Looking Glass Self". This approach to discovering our identity was one not of maturation or stages (unlike the psychodynamic Erikson and Freud, nor the cognitive views of Piaget); but one which was more relational. We discovered ourselves through how we were reflected in the eyes of others.

This approach goes a long way to explain how, when we haven't seen people for a long time, it takes a while to recalibrate our perceptions - in my eyes a friend's sister, now 30 is in my mind, 15 years old! It explains how we too may revert (or regress) to past behaviours when relating with people who knew us from the past. It isn't as if we've all remained frozen in time - like some meta version of Miss Haversham - but rather that in a way the relationship needs to fast forward from "back then."

As a form of self discovery, the "Looking glass self" also speaks to our younger selves looking in the mirror asking "Who am I?". We might experiment with our look, we might try something new, we might change things around until we feel comfortable. We then take this further afield and see how others respond to us, and whether we are comfortable with that response - or if we need to tweak it up again. Even personal stylists will often advise we take photos of ourselves in our outfits so we can think about which ones put across the message we want others to perceive.

The internet, however, adds another dimension, and not necessarily a helpful one.

While the selfie - for ourselves - can be a record for our own evaluation, "...the selfie, posted on our public platforms, has the singular purpose of "Do you like me like this?"" (Aitken, 2016). Even if that platform is restricted to "friends" - consciously or otherwise - we use the responses to assist our judgment. Many "likes" means we are more likely to post similar, wear similar, do similar; few - or *sharp intake of breath* none - and we may even delete the offending photo and do something different. And "different" often means seeing what someone else did that got them "likes".

The problems with this are:

  1. We are not someone else

  2. There are many reasons why some photos garnered response and others didn't

  3. The criterion others are using is not necessarily what we would want to use - nor what is most useful to us (someone may simply not like our hair colour rather than our outfit)

  4. When we "like" something - we do not assume "What message am I sending to the original poster" - we simply "like" it.

  5. Why are we reducing ourselves to such simplistic "ratings" anyway?

Now I am certainly an advocate of - on your platform you post what makes you happy. And therefore if someone is simply posting for the sake of doing so "selfie expression" if you will - you keep on doing it! For my part, if I like watching I'll scroll through, if I don't I'll "snooze" - not that it should matter to you anyway!!

For my own part I do pay some mind to responses when I look at my brand pages, although I balance out (i) the amount of time and effort I want to put in, (ii) whether I'm just trying to have a presence so people can find me, or (iii) if I've got secret aspirations to be an influencer. I've settled on - oh it might be nice to be "popular", but as a pretty good psychologist, I know I can help, but I'm most useful when you want as long as you can find me that's enough.

On my personal page I post what I like - you don't have to follow me(!) - and I tend to like posting when I can tag people. I don't get to see my friends much in real, for better or worse, my facebook page is a bit like maintaining my social group. But, as a rule, until I've told the people who matter offline first (via email, pm or text - whether we're "friends" on fb or not), I won't post anything really personal. My reasoning is, for me facebook is a good place to reach those who know me, but it's not my preferred medium for nurturing those I love to know. I don't want my nearest and dearest to feel like they need to "log on" to know what's really going on with me.

But there's the problem with seeking "online validation" in a nutshell. Firstly even I would be first to agree that I curate my personal page - but that's to maintain my boundaries. What if you are curating it to shape what works for you? It's not a judgment, it's just a way of using social media. My way of using social media is my way - you have your way.

So, IF you are posting and are being affected by the responses (or lack of them), remember:

1. You have no idea in what context people are using their platform - therefore their responses will often speak more to their approach to the tool rather than as a validation within your approach to it.

2. If you are posting to get someone's attention - ask yourself, is contacting them directly a healthier thing to do? (...and why aren't I doing it? - keeping ourselves in check is always a useful exercise.)

3. Be aware of your true motivation - and see if there is a better place to get the answers you seek. Social media is not the only - and certainly not the most helpful place - to ask the subconscious question "am I doing ok?" ( before you post seeking such an answer, see if you can approach a trusted person personally first.)

...and remember, at the core, "...there is only one good opinion which must be of utmost importance to you - your own." (Seet, 1951).

Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and author. Listen to her podcast Retrain Your Brain here; and catch her practical masterclasses Psych Back to Basics on DisruptiveTV & Energy Top Up for resilience For quick tips and tools: click for SKILL PILL and Q&A videos and here for Media appearances. Twitter/IG @draudreyt

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