We all have a particular way we would like to portray ourselves to the world. We don an outfit that we believe best expresses who we are, spend large amounts of money on things that we don't really need, and filter our images to perfection. Both in real life and online, we manage our presence carefully in order to be who we think we should be. Along the way, we also want to be acknowledged for what we like, wear, say and do.

As part of generation Y, we grew up with cellphones and social media as a way to continually express ourselves. The way we use social media now doesn't always portray how we are in real life. Take Tinder for instance. You've painstakingly chosen a picture which you believe best represents you as a person. Maybe it's of that-one-time-you-went-to-that-cool-place and did that-cool-thing-which-received-100-likes-on-Facebook. You know it's legit. There is no doubt as to which way people should swipe (right, of course).

Crafting your online persona

By managing our online appearance and how others perceive us, social media is now a common method used to protect our self-esteem — otherwise known as our inherent sense of self-worth and adequacy. We can see support in this based on discussions and interest in how many "likes" we get, and our anxiety when no one likes our pouty selfie. Relying on others to manage our self-esteem is particularly important in Asian culture as people prefer not to acknowledge their own achievements. We end up improving ourselves in the aspects that we think others find important, whether it be social status, work ethic, appearance and style, or being an opinion leader in food or travel. This way, our self-esteem is maintained, and our sense of self-worth is bolstered through compliments on what you wear, on that #selfie you posted on Facebook, or that new hip café you snapped about.

Do we really know ourselves or only who we want others to see?

Interestingly, one aspect of psychology that is most at play is the concept of reinforcement and punishment. That is, we tend to do more of things that garner positive attention from others because it makes us feel good. We tend to do less of things, like posting about mundane everyday happenings, if they make us feel anxious because of the lack of attention from others. Therefore when you achieve 50 likes on Facebook for a selfie, you're likely to post more selfies to receive that positive feedback again. Those little thumb-ups are a boost to your self-esteem and tells you that you've done a good job. Thus, this pattern feeds on itself in a cyclic fashion, and make us more and more addicted to selfies in the meantime.

Social media and self esteem

The dangers of treading too deeply

Unfortunately, with everything in life there are two sides to the coin. Yin and yang, if you will. What is the cost of managing our social presence so carefully and using it as a measure of our inherent self-worth? Let's flick back to the Tinder example: it is acceptable to judge whether we want to date someone by swiping left or right based on a picture and a little blurb of what the person thinks about themselves. That snap judgement based on appearances is dangerous. Whatever happened to "don't judge a book by its cover?" 

When was the last time you saw something authentic? More often than not, our online persona doesn't sync up with reality. We carefully curate a selection of moments that we believe captures the best of us. We are constantly putting on a show for everyone, and everyone is putting on a show for us. Do we really know ourselves or only who we want others to see?

We begin living for others and rely on external reinforcements as validation of our existence. We neglect the only person we truly need to impress — ourselves.

The greatest difficulty with the discrepancy between reality and our online presence is that we invite judgment from ourselves and others. Our self-esteem becomes dependent on someone's whim and our judgement of ourselves are constantly benchmarked against someone else's online presence. We may find ourselves being dissatisfied with our lives because someone has posted a photo of a leisurely lunch while we're stuck eating at our desks. Our self-esteem may end up suffering because we are constantly comparing ourselves to carefully curated moments that do not show everyday life. Our profile photo didn't garner as many likes as the last one. Bummer. Less than half of the cool kids have accepted your party invitation on Faceboook — are you unpopular? In a way, we have handed our control over our emotions and sense of self-worth to something we cannot control.

Ultimately, the negatives of our social presence is that in our quest to improve ourselves, we end up setting expectations of ourselves that we cannot meet. What we look like and how we portray ourselves becomes equated to the deep richness of who we actually are. We begin living for others and rely on external reinforcements as validation of our existence. We neglect the only person who we truly need to impress — ourselves. 

Striking a balance

From a psychological point of view, living in line with personal values and doing what we personally believe is worthwhile is the best way to improve satisfaction in life and self-esteem. Perhaps making ourselves happy is more important than simply having others believe our lives are perfect. See yourself more clearly: acknowledge your weaknesses and your strengths. Make sure that you do something everyday that makes you feel accomplished and cherish that moment. Ask yourself what the things are that would make you feel truly fulfilled in life — don't wait for fulfilment, simply do things that will make you feel fulfilled. That way, you can truly take your fate into your own hands and the only person's opinion that will really matter will be your own. 


About Cissy Li

Originally from New Zealand, Cissy is a fan of thinking outside the box. She firmly believes that people can achieve greater fulfillment in their lives by being open and living authentically. When she's not busy living life, writing for Buro 24/7 Singapore, or engaging in volunteer work, Cissy enjoys her day job as a registered clinical psychologist."