As I get older I feel like time is speeding up and I worry about not making the most of it. I love Buddhist teachings about living in the here and now and how the present moment is all there is. But it’s not easy to live by and there is one thing in my life that sucks me right out of the moment: searching online. My main digital missions over the years have been houses and holidays. How much time have I wasted on Rightmove?! For a long time I was searching for a new house in Liverpool…then it was Manchester…then it was rental properties….At one point there was even a crazy scheme about holiday rentals in Bulgaria! And it doesn’t matter if there isn’t a real property to look for. Checking sold prices, or ogling mansions out of my price range. I can get sucked in for literally hours, getting increasingly adrenalized with that tight buzzy agitated feeling like I’m in some kind of vacuum packed vortex. Once gripped by the search it becomes harder to emerge, blinking into realisation of the time wasted.
The search for holidays has waned now that I have a challenging five year old. And maybe the fact that we have to go on virtually the same predictable holiday every time is a bonus! But at one point I could also while away the hours putting together packages of the cheapest possible flight and accommodation. Often for holidays that we had no intention of going on. A hilarious friend once admitted that she also did this and pointed out how she would never dream of doing it in a travel agent. She was, she said, “not that much of a nutter!”
Social media is inevitably another challenge. I’ve lost hours buried deep in the four year old wedding photos of an old school friend that I no longer see, feeling a bit stalkerish and guilty for judging her dress. I also scroll mindlessly through profiles feeling distant from close friends. Cut off and not quite valid enough to be part of their shiny looking life.
But even though I know intellectually that online searching may not be good for me, I keep returning. Why is it so addictive and appealing? And is this website just adding to the issue?
We now know that social media’s design features like notifications at random and pull to refresh are specifically designed to give us the neuro chemical buzz that colonises our attention and keeps us hooked. Neuro marketing is being used to target our brains. And it’s this way that marketing works with our brains, behavour and emotions that is so fascinating.
Shame and vulnerability researcher Brene Brown’s work on emotions is so spot on. Through her insights I’ve realised how much my activity online is about trying to avoid feelings of shame and vulnerability and how marketing exploits this. Shame is “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” If I’m feeling uncomfortable, exposed, inadequate, uncertain, alone, anxious, fearful, hurt, bored, dissatisfied, I enter the (anti) social glossy world and it offers promise of escape. And what’s this escape into? The quest for perfection.
Brene defines perfection as about trying to earn approval and acceptance. And that defines digital. Managing impressions is what marketing is about. So we enter a vicious cycle of being persuaded through marketing practices to seek perfection, and using marketing practices of impression management to do that seeking. When I search for the perfect property or view smiling celebrity families there is a feeling of potential that rightness can be reached. There is a hopeful and exciting momentum to moving on, moving up and taking control. If only I could do it all just right. If I could just make more money, ace that diet or generally transform myself into something I’m not. I would know people approved of me then.
Likes, mentions and follows, are also well designed to give me the buzz of validation. One step closer to perfect! And despite having a website, my hunt for approval is tame. One man with unbelievable amounts of cosmetic surgery has 50,000 followers on Instagram and is addicted to selfies, taking 200 a day. And in China over 325 million people use an app to live stream themselves. We perform and please, pretend and perfect. And when we do this we keep our truer selves and experiences under wraps and airbrushed out of our image. But according to Brene, it is this secrecy that actually works as a petri dish for shame.
So what could feel better? The antidote to shame is empathy. How would it be if we were less judgmental and more honest about our truer lives and vulnerabilities? It’s uncomfortable to feel uncertain and emotionally exposed, to acknowledge feeling unworthy. It can be difficult to let go of trying to control our image. We want to be able to control what others think of us so we can feel good enough. And it’s not always easy to slow down and be with ourselves and our mixed and uncomfortable feelings. But what if we took that risk more?
I went to see Viv Albertine of punk band the Splits in conversation recently and she was direct and raw and funny. And she talked about how she wanted to speak honestly about the messy realities of her experiences, struggles and emotions in order that others may feel less alone. Just hearing that was a refreshing relief.
It is my intention that the films, events and words on this website will help people connect through empathy and understanding. It will be a forum for sharing shame and vulnerabilities with less comparison and judgment and for greater openness about hidden and stigmatised experiences. And it will bring an ahhh of relief through allowing us to let go of the pressures of perfection. So we can laugh in recognition and realise that we are not alone. Let’s join Viv in closing the gap. Let’s get truer!