In 2018, I took an Instagram sabbatical for six months. I permanently deleted my account on a whim, after having some challenging experiences in relationships that were exacerbated online.
It was a ballsy move and I don’t regret it. It fundamentally shifted my relationship to social media and to my phone. I mean, look around you right now if you’re in a public space – chances are, most people are staring down into the blue light of their device. It’s habitual and addictive. How on earth did people used to just sit there waiting with no screen stimulation? Even when you’re at dinner, it’s instinctual to check your phone if they get up and go to the bathroom for five minutes. God forbid we’re left alone with our own thoughts.
Every time I had a spare moment where I would usually unconsciously pull out my phone to check social media, I had to do a double take as I consciously remembered I deleted it. I couldn’t just download the app again and sign in, as most of us have tried when we go on a ‘social media detox’.
I became super aware of all the time I spent mindlessly scrolling, or simply opening up my phone just to look like I wasn’t a loser sitting by myself. Instead, I was forced to be present. I would people watch and actually observe what was happening around me. It was uncomfortable, but it got easier with time.
I also became less inclined to take photos. Lets be real, the intention behind most of the photos we take nowadays is to share them with others online. So I stopped being performative in taking photos, because there was no longer an audience to consume them. It was probably a tad disappointing for my friends when I returned from overseas with hardly any pictures of myself.
Eventually, I felt called to make another Instagram, which was originally for my magazine project, Celestial. It felt liberating to start one again on an entirely clean slate, where nobody knew me and I could be anyone I wanted. I could follow whoever inspired me, as opposed to feeling that weird social obligation to follow acquaintances you have literally NOTHING in common with. I loved having my own corner on social media where I was unknown and could express myself freely (not unlike the origins of this blog btw).
But curse the algorithm, because over time people started to recognize me and follow me. And then I felt the familiar sense of fear arise, the fear of being of too exposed and vulnerable to those around me. I don’t know what about posting online makes me feel like I’m standing naked in the Colosseum.
I think it has to do with the collapsing of social boundaries. It can be incredibly difficult to discern what to share and what to withhold, when you’re speaking to an audience that encompasses family, friends, work colleagues, acquaintances, potential love interests, shared hobby enthusiasts… It can create a lot of anxiety about how to show up on social media for anyone.
As more people I knew started to follow me, I stopped sharing as frequently, my captions became less detailed, and I turned into another regurgitated Instagram clone. Not that anything is wrong with that. But the tone of my captions and the kind of photos I was posting was not really true to what I wanted to express (and my intention for starting an account again).
Before I deleted Instagram, I certainly didn’t think about it as much. I would have a nice photo of me and then post it without much critique. Now, there’s this whole psychoanalytical process into posting a photo: should I share this? Is my caption too cringey? Will people laugh at my weird interests? How would I feel about sharing this with future employers? Would I display this on a billboard?
Going through all these internal dilemmas is so exhausting that in the end I never post anything at all. This is obviously not a problem in itself – some people are entirely content with remaining unplugged and off the grid. Yet, I know there is a part of me deep down who does want to be expressed online. At this point, I’m basically just hiding out of fear and shame of being myself.
It’s really a practice of discernment. I’m partially scarred by my past of over-sharing and emotionally dumping on the internet. Seriously, most of us Gen Z kids have our humiliating pasts scattered all over the web because we had no real grasp of what was acceptable to post and what was not (we had no concept of permanence).
Like real life, we don’t go and share 100% of ourselves with everybody, because not all of them will deserve it. And I think it’s important to keep some parts of yourself just for you, as a means of self-respect. Not just anyone should be able to get an all access key-card to your inner emotional experiences.
I’m not all the way there in sharing and being vulnerable –both online and in person – but I’m inching closer and closer. Over the years, I’ve swung pretty radically from having absolutely no boundaries to now having pretty thick walls. So now I’m trying to find my own middle ground, where I can share parts of myself and feel safe in doing so, whilst at the same time being discerning about the parts of my life I do post about.
This blog has been key part of this process, and I recently created another Instagram account to practice sharing vulnerably without too much thought into it. Right now, I’m learning major lessons in relationships in how to be fully seen, which is totally connected to this exploration of how I also hold myself back online. I’m not putting any pressure on myself to have it all figured out right now. But I know the time is coming, where I’m just going to have to feel the fear and do it anyway.
image: Rocco Caruso, Unsplash