Making space for emotions on social media

Happy happy joy joy

A few days ago I was mindlessly scrolling through Instagram stories and, in between images of infants in fancy diapers and homely scenes featuring labrador-languidly-laying-next-to-marble-coffee-table-with-fresh-flowers-on-top; (children, dog, table, flowers, and general home ensemble miraculously matching), I  saw the screenshot of a DM (direct message) of a follower who wondered if the lady broadcasting her domestic joys was happy. The follower said: “Maybe it’s me, but I get the feeling that you look tired very often. I was wondering if you’re happy”. The Instagram-person went on an Instagram-story rant, admitting to looking and feeling tired, and justifying her puffy eyes and the frequent lack of a smile on her face by invoking her circumstances: from recent motherhood to (holy) entrepreneurship. The Insta-lady made sure to conclude: “Despite all of this I’ve never been happier”.

Many people seem to believe, just like that follower, that social media’s main role is something along the lines of showing off and measuring one’s degree of happiness (ours and other people’s). The “I’ve never been happier” Insta-lady seems to believe it too. On socials, the job of the regular citizen is performing happiness. The ones who fail to comply with the happinization of their online presence (or with the “look-at-how-busy-I-am”) must have a defect of some sort. There must be something wrong when you’re not perfecting your life enough for public consumption.

© Borre Diesbergen

Let’s have a conversation

I have been in that position before. I remember talking about mental illness, and the ways that it can manifest for me and, in return, having an acquaintance say that my content was “too heavy” and a follower wondering if I was alright. Great that people reach out (and I’m assuming that they care), but what I actually wanted was to create space for a conversation that I thought was worth having. Instead of having someone share whatever sort of idea about the topic I was proposing, I had an acquaintance ask me, in other words, “what’s wrong with you?” Many people complain about the superficiality of social media but very few are willing to deal with realness. Honestly, if my agenda were solely communicating my cool persona, I could proficiently just do that. But it makes no sense to me that good feelings equal the public sphere and difficult ones must be kept private. 

Despite the fact that socials are heavily used to showcase personas, lifestyles or sell products, there’s a lot more you can do with it. There are many people sharing their art, talking politics, doing some sort of activism, discussing all sorts of relevant topics. Instagram (and the likes) are arguably not the place to discuss certain topics in-depth. Their workings are addictive and privilege numbers and the instantaneous hype. But since we’re there, we might as well do something useful with it. Social media can serve as a platform to inform and start conversations. So when I say, “hey, this is what’s going on with me in terms of mental health” I’m not seeking comfort nor gratuitous attention. I find comfort in my friends and family; and professional attention (unfortunately non-gratuitous) at the psychologist’s office. I use my Instagram account to share and ramble about favorite topics, which include emotions, feelings, and the joy and the mess of being a human.

© Borre Diesbergen

Social media is dull so let me just post another photo of my-best-self in a fancy set-up

Being a human on this planet means that we’re going to experience a rich spectrum of feelings, both the pleasant and the unpleasant ones and that we cannot have one without the other. I kind of feel ridiculous writing this sentence because of how basic it sounds. At the same time, I don’t think we remember it enough. I do not know anyone, healthy or not, who has never experienced sadness, anger, and anguish of some sort. If we can’t have joy in our lives without the unhappy seasons too, that means that we are collectively putting up a feel-good show- especially on socials -, maintaining an illusion of collectedness and perfection. And the irony of it is that we’re all complaining about it. How stale, mundane, and superficial is social media, we claim, while we post yet another picture of ourselves, grinning in the best outfit we own, at yet another celebratory event / beach / rooftop / restaurant / holiday destination. 

In our permanent online display of happy happy joy joy, we censor the richness of our emotional lives. If pain and difficult feelings are unavoidable parts of life, why would they not be interesting topics to talk about? If we all go through it, wouldn’t it be helpful to examine how to deal with the shit we all have to deal with? It is great when we can shift our focus from the pettiness, the drama, and the negativity to everything that deserves celebration in life. But pretending that celebration is the only thing that exists in life is not only ridiculous: it is also damaging.

© Borre Diesbergen

Not a mirror

As a matter of sanity, we need to create distance, dis-identify from our social media handles, and understand that socials cannot mirror people’s lives. Not even in those cases in which the subject is regularly communicating their life online and seems “very genuine”. Also not if they talk about emotions and feelings. People’s lives are complex, multilayered, and often paradoxical. A unidimensional platform like Instagram or Facebook cannot possibly convey all that. Plus, one is always biased when talking about their own -self. My point is, social media is always a creation – even for non-creators. People show what they want to show, and omit what they want to omit. The fact that some accounts are extremely mundane doesn’t make them closer to the reality of the subject’s experience because the subject manipulates what we see.

When I say that I am committing to some kind of realness on socials, I don’t mean that I will “show you my life as it is”. That would be impossible, even if I wanted to do so. What I aim at is to talk about the good stuff and the difficult stuff as well. I find it important to tackle the messiness because I know that I have a voice. I view it as ‘controlled exposure’. This relative exposure can cause me no harm as I only discuss topics that I feel ready to own. Opening up about personal struggles leads to having richer conversations about matters that are akin to all of us. Realness doesn’t equal online reality show. It simply means that when my personal life is the starting point for a reflection, I try to do it in the most honest manner possible because I want the interaction with others to start from there. Online and in real life. I don’t necessarily need to show myself in the best possible light. I have long realized that my showcase of personal cool could leave others feeling inadequate, especially online, in this space where we’re bombarded by other people’s peaks of happy happy joy joy. It is easy to appear collected, and cool, and successful on social media. The questions I keep asking myself: how interesting is it for me to serve people my own perfected image over and over again? Is this relevant for others in any way? How can I make this post more useful/interesting to those who follow me? The answer is always in the imperfection, in the element of surprise, in the contradiction, in the layers, in the non-literal, in everything that is puzzling and opens up a question, and often also in the caption, where the conversation takes place.

© Borre Diesbergen

Embrace the rough edges

We need more expressions of humanness out there. I choose to follow people who post more thoughtful and more honest content and I try to contribute with the same degree of openness. I TRY. For me, life’s rough edges are the most interesting thing to talk about. They challenge me exactly because they involve vulnerability. Those are the parts that have the potential to really make us connect to each other like, for real. On a deeper level. 

When someone DM’s me asking “Ana, where’s your smile?” because I posted I’m serious AF in a particular photo perhaps they assume that there is something wrong with me, perhaps they assume I’m not happy. I can’t be bothered to answer. Happiness is not the point. Not on Instagram, not in life. It took me time to figure out this simple truth. Or to surrender to it, to be more exact. I don’t feel like smiling all the time, nor do I think I should. I want my experience of the world to be larger than that. And I also want to have fun and be able to play with the status quo on my own account. Getting through the day is a heroic enough task, at times. At times of existential pain, at times of heartbreak, and loss of loved ones, and of financial uncertainty, and also when we lose touch with a drive or a purpose of some sort. Plus, at times of greedy companies and self-serving politicians, and social injustice, and climate change. And freaking PMS, and chronic illness, and cancer. Speaking of which, I have to go take care of something. It’s not going to be quick, nor comfortable, and perhaps I’ll share parts of the journey with you. And I’ll do it the same way that I share the parties, and the food, and the travels and the joy and the awesomeness. But that’s the subject for the next chapter.


In the meanwhile, if you got curious to see what the heck are accounts that I enjoy following, here are a few links: 

On real connection: Jamie Varon / So Cards / Nina Montagne / Beyond Beautiful Book / The Right Feeling / Bethany Toews

On literature: Brain Picker

On yoga: Yoga Maris

On art: Nowness / Immersive Art / Senns_lessMari Andrew / Amanda Palmer / Mystic Mamma

On sustainability: Fashion for Good / Zero Waste Chef / Real precious plastic

On food: Pick Up Limes

On independent journalism: BBC MinuteThe Guardian

On a super-hero: Ocasio

On mental health: check Notes from your therapist / The holistic psychologist

2 thoughts on “Making space for emotions on social media

  1. Riny Reiken

    Lieve Ana, wat een indrukwekkend verhaal en sprekende foto’s, ik denk veel aan jou en vooral aan je moed en uitleg waarmee je anderen helpt met positief denken, vind ik ontroerend mooi 💓

    1. Ana Seas

      Dankjewel voor je mooie worden, lieve Riny. Ik hoop inderdaad dat ik anderen kan aanmoedigen om opener en heerlijker te zijn. We hoeven helemaal niet de hele tijd stoer te doen. Sterker nog, door onze kwetsbaarheid te durfen laten zien, voelen anderen zich minder alleen. Veel liefs!

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