I see our culture’s current obsession with Facebook/Twitter/Tumbler and the like as related to our natural desire to be witnessed. And yet interacting with our community in this format leaves many of us feeling hollow and disconnected. I can’t tell you how many times my clients and friends have complained to me about how hurt they were when not enough people “liked” their recent post or photo. This quantifiable way of measuring how our friends and the broader community are responding to us can be pernicious.
Participating in social media can be understood as a way in which we ask our community to connect with and/or bear witness to us, and yet as fun and interesting as it can be, most people find this way of connecting leaves them lacking, still searching for that felt-sense of being truly seen and accepted.
When we become overly focused on who has “liked” our recent posts, or commented on our family photos, we lose sight of what the desire to be witnessed is really about. Being truly witnessed is powerful and transformative. It is the feeling experienced by a newborn when their parent gazes lovingly at them, witnessing and celebrating every tiny burp and giggle as a miracle. Why is it that we can do this for a child, but not for each other in adolescence and adulthood? We get more and more disconnected as we grow up and join the social world. Our need for deep, genuine connection changes as we age, but doesn’t disappear.
Humans developed in community, not in isolation. There is a reason that a form or torture is to isolate someone from all contact with other human beings. This literally makes us crazy. Though we are connected through social media, there is a distinct lack of that difficult to describe, but impossible to miss feeling of deep connection that we all need. We are all clamoring to be seen and acknowledged by one another, but aren’t able to quiet our own voices long enough to hear the other person and truly bear witness. Sure we may like their post, or comment on a photo, but does that really connect us on a deep level? No. We are typically distracted or scrolling through many interesting things which are all competing for our attention.
So, should we all delete our Facebook accounts and disengage from social media? Not necessarily, there are many great things about social media and the ways it can help us stay in touch. I think the answer lies not in putting our heads in the sand and pretending the world hasn’t changed, but rather in realizing the power of giving someone our undivided attention.
Try this experiment: The next time you communicate with a local friend over social media, make concrete plans to meet up with them in person. Then when you are with your friend, commit to both of you keeping your phones/tablets/etc off for the duration of the time you together. See how this changes your interaction with them, and what it feels like to focus your undivided attention on one person, and to have their undivided attention focused on you.