“Why does everyone else seem so happy, together, free…?”
“What do they all know that I don’t?”
“Am I the only one that…?”
Have you ever felt more real than the people you’re surrounded by?
It’s not that you feel superior or want to be celebrated; you just wish you could connect with others, but most seem forever preoccupied with superficial distractions you can’t help but find unimportant
They seem to know just what to say, both in person and online, but it’s like they’re not really saying much of anything. They react to each other in similar ways, making noises you recognize as laughter, shock, acknowledgment, glee…
But you find no substance at the base of their commotions.
It’s a little like hearing a hijacked language being used only for its own sake—the phrases uttered merely for novelty.
How do you suppose they all see you?
For sure, none can see your real experience. A few catch glimpses of the way you portray yourself. But you’re not even fully aware of why you act the way you do, or of exactly how you come across; so even if everyone were paying close attention to all your attempts at expression, you’d still never be completely known.
So, is it worthwhile trying to be authentic?
Or, is it better to show that you can fit in?
I find most of what society celebrates too impermanent to really focus on. Trends change as trendsetters and their followers come and go. Fads are quietly replaced. Irony becomes a whole new set of mostly old things you can buy and try to reclaim identity from . . . at least for a while.
I once visited a hookah bar with some friends from work. After passing through doorways of beads and glass, I saw groups and pairs of mostly young folks spread out all around.
Navigating my way through distinct layers of fruity clouds, I heard talking and laughter. I watched staff circle to take orders and nudge the greyed-out corners of burning coals.
It was a nice atmosphere. Music blared as music videos played. To me, everyone there looked exactly the same as the people in the videos.
Phones flashed as faces bunched and smiled.
It became obvious that being at that hookah bar, looking a certain way, speaking the right language, etc. was a collective experience everyone else was completely committed to producing.
Yet, glancing around that room, I couldn’t help but think: ‘None of you are going to be there with me when I die. So what’s the point?’
Now, before you write me off as grim or nihilistic, I’d like to share why my thought that night was only superficially bleak. I don’t see life as worthless. In fact, life feels too important to spend being someone I’m not with people who don’t care about knowing the real me at all.
I don’t want to feel like an actor constantly driven to pester the rest of the cast with questions like: “So, what’s my character’s motivation in this scene?”
Relationships in such a superficial world seem akin to continental drift. We gradually orbit in and out of each other’s lives, acting how we think we’re supposed to in whichever situations we experience together, and that’s it.
We keep in touch once we drift away, but only from about as far as the strangers we see often. It’s all posted and public—our lives ever being held up to newsfeed lights where they’re measured against unfixed bars which unseen majorities must somewhere be smiling upon . . . at least for now.
Why do we live this way? Why do we value approval and conformity above authenticity, transparency, and real connection?
Why do we spend our lives impressing those we don’t really know until we end up in hospitals being taken care of by more strangers for a final run at trying as hard as we can not to overly embarrass ourselves?
I believe part of our motivation comes from being a society that’s always had its famous heroes.
Basically, our heroes are those we all wish we could be. In a way, they’re our replacements. They live the lives we want instead of us.
Our heroes are our security and identity in a world we’re always told is risky and filled with scary “others.”
Therapist and psychoanalyst Sue Bloland writes, “In adulthood we idealize the famous as a way of sustaining the belief we held as children that we are protected by people more powerful and capable than ourselves in a world too frightening to endure without the comfort of this illusion.”
Our heroes have always reflected our standards of excellence and success. Yet somewhere along the line our standards changed.
The title of hero was once reserved for those great champions who proved themselves to all through their achievements, rising to dominance in a society that prized liberty and individualism. They were the bold movers and shakers who established and toppled power structures, enacting the impossible to leave a larger-than-life legacy in history.
Then we switched to a new standard where fame became all about image. We began to value status over skill . . . appearance over substance.
Associate Director of Health Sciences at Emory University, Mary Loftus, writes, “The worst you could say of the old kind of fame, the kind based on accomplishment, was that it clouded your vision. The new, less durable fame, the kind refracted through images, proves especially corrosive to the self.”
In short, we became a culture in which everyday people were taught that they should be satisfied to be represented by those beautiful, charming, lucky few who were handed fame simply for being able to appear a certain way.
“Today men seek the kind of approval that applauds not their actions but their personal attributes,” writes historian and social critic, Christopher Lasch. “They wish to be not so much esteemed as admired. They crave not fame but the glamour and excitement of celebrity. They want to be envied rather than respected… What a man does matters less than the fact that he has ‘made it.’”
Then, not long after celebrity replaced achievement as our highest ideal, technology basically flung fame’s doors wide open to all.
Celebrity was once reserved for only the privileged and chosen. Models, movie stars, pop stars, and other cultural icons were handed the weight of the world’s attention to carry.
But take a walk through any city, and you’ll see scores of beautiful people just as capable of looking, sounding, and acting as perfect as any celebrity can be made to appear in the media.
Once the internet, social media, and YouTube essentially gave everyone the means to create a sizeable following for themselves, our celebrity-obsession dynamics quickly spilled over to prevail in new mediums.
I see a particular tragedy in that, given what I believe those online avenues could still represent: a place for all individuals to experience free and honest connections based on who we really are.
But since anyone can now portray themselves as whatever they think we’re all supposed to be, the pressure to create a perfect and socially acceptable image online is heightened rather than diminished.
Instead of being a place where we could all easily connect based on our real values and interests, the internet became a scary, cliquish place where that feeling that everyone else knows just how to appear happy in their frivolous pursuits is magnified.
And fame online is offered like a drug.
Journalism and media professor at Creighton University, Jeffrey Maciejewski, confirms: “The activity behind such things as Facebook status updates and tweets arouses our central reward center, dispensing dopamine, the neurotransmitter whose effects are amplified by stimulants like cocaine and methamphetamine. Consequently, some people turn to social media for this stimulation.”
In other words, we’ve turned our currency of image-manufacturability into a real time chemical drive.
The unspoken message understood by all is that success in a world of image can only be attained by appearing to fit one of a few pre-crafted molds.
The existence of the internet and social media mean we’re now all exposed to everything all at once. This leaves no time for deep evaluation or nuance.
We’re a generation that can’t afford to read the book or unravel references.
Thus, the image we portray can’t really be that original. It’s simply the case that none of us have the time to understand several billion unique expressions simultaneously.
To be accepted today, we’re given pieces of pre-existing images to attempt to conform to. But none of us will ever be able to conform perfectly, since real people are far more complex than the soundbite (and fashion bit) categories we’re all thrown and then silently yelled at to try as hard as we can to adopt.
And that’s the whole point: In an image-dominated world, we’re not actually supposed to fit. We’re supposed to act like we fit. We’re supposed to show that we can appear to fit.
And some are great at that. They even show much practical intelligence in doing so, since portraying an acceptable image has become foundational to success.
Props to them.
Others, like me, will never be able to pretend.
People who know how to create a favorable image for themselves based on society’s standards are called narcissists.
Now, narcissism isn’t a derogatory term. Narcissists aren’t self-obsessed. Rather, they’re image-obsessed, or image-adept.
Originally, narcissism revers to Narcissus, a character in Greek mythology who fell in love with his own reflection.
Narcissists are those who know how to work with the pieces we’re all given.
Again, none of us will ever actually be what society deems acceptable. We all fall short. Narcissism is simply one way to respond to our inevitable feelings of inadequacy whenever we see ourselves not measuring up.
Narcissists are driven to pretend they do measure up, whereas others aren’t.
To the narcissist, the image they portray is not a lie or disingenuous. In fact, narcissists do all they can to convince themselves and everyone else that they really are their image.
Writer and narcissism expert Randi Kreger says, “This mask, which the narcissist thinks is real . . . chases away feelings of depression, abandonment, and shame. It protects her from painful feelings.”
The most successful, happy-seeming people who amass the most followers and fans are actually just the most adept at appearing the way we all think we’re supposed to.
The narcissist’s image is, in truth, the opposite of everything they could never bear to admit seeing within themselves. They unconsciously run from their own unacknowledged inadequacies toward the image they create.
For the narcissist, life becomes all about performance. Maintaining the integrity of the image becomes their primary goal.
“When a person feels so deeply flawed that he or she cannot imagine ever ‘fitting in’ in human society,” writes Bloland, “a solution is to imagine rising above human society. This is the narcissistic solution to shame: If I am not lovable for who I am, I will have to make people admire me for what I can do—and that is how I will make sure that I am never abandoned and alone.”
In a world ruled by image, true flaws are never acceptable to show. That means we all end up robbed of the ability to really know and connect with each other on a level that includes weaknesses and other shameful aspects of how we feel and behave.
Kreger says of narcissists, “Life is dominated by doing, achievement, and performance rather than on intimate connections with others.”
If we can’t be real, we’re left with two basic options: Either we give up and quietly watch the seasons of trendy fakeness pass by until we ultimately die alone; or we engage in the exhausting, life-long exercise of earning public approval by maintaining an acceptable image.
You might say I’m imagining a different kind of world, yet one I believe already has the potential to exist.
I’m speaking to the unseen, dull grey masses . . . those currently hidden in shadows cast by a few shining stars.
I’m speaking to those who so far only watch, and read, and “like” . . . those who wait unnoticed down in the dirt as frozen faces on plastic billboards are raised above into an empty sky.
If you’re someone that values transparency and real connection, I hope to inspire you to move in the direction of being and showing the world a person as close to the real you as you can be.
I’m not really fighting against narcissism or society’s values. I’m not trying to change the world, culture, or public opinion.
Challenging values never actually works. Have you ever met anyone that doesn’t think they know what’s best?
No amount of data could convince someone bent on being acceptable that it might be better for them to be more the person they’re so desperate to escape. . . the person that they will not see within themselves (at all costs!).
That’s the thing: I’m not telling narcissists to stop trying to be relevant.
“Part of being in a relationship with a narcissist,” writes Kreger, “is accepting that he sees the world the way he does, and you can’t change it. You can, however, change yourself and the situation.”
So I’m speaking to others like me: people who want to be the best versions of their true selves that they can be.
I’m speaking to those who don’t value fame, status, celebrity, or image, for such things seem to end up only using our lives to draw needless excess in unsustainable bursts of hype.
Normalcy is drawn to balance and peace, which are some of my core values.
I’m writing to those who don’t want to be seen as special, but who want to be themselves—unique individuals who happen to find themselves living in this strange, amazing world for whatever reason.
I’ve found enormous value in seeing and sharing my real experience.
In facing everything about who and what I actually am, I see what I truly want enough to eventually move beyond all that’s held me back.
Maturity, character, and change can be the result of being unable to ignore your true state and values over time . . . which happens when you find a way to share those things publically.
Bloland writes, “I would propose that self-esteem is experienced in the context of authentic interpersonal encounters in which the self is revealed and acknowledged rather than obscured by idealized self-images.”
But I believe the value of sharing our real experience goes beyond just the benefit of helping us maximize our individual potential. Who we truly are today can be recorded to last forever, leaving an accurate footprint for all future generations.
If some distant species were to one day see everything we currently show of ourselves, how much of us would they really know? Would they just see what we think we’re supposed to be?
I believe our silly, normal human lives are valuable (just as they are), and that what we express should remain a memorial to the fact that we happened to exist and have the particular experiences we had.
History need not be written only by the winners anymore . . . or, in today’s case, flashed through in slideshows of the famous and trendy.
Education Specialist Deborah Bial said in her commencement address at the University of Rochester:
I say take a risk. Be your real self. I’m guessing it’s pretty good and you’ve tried it before, right? You put a toe into the waters of a classroom discussion, even if you’re not sure you’re going to sound smart enough. You peel back a layer of yourself when you go on a date, holding your breath while you hope that he or she won’t run away when they see the real you. These chances are worth the risk. The rewards are great. We win relationships. We win respect. We win love. We win by living in a world we can touch, see, feel, and believe in. A world that is real. So take the risk. Help create a society where we can trust what we hear. And if the instances of truth outnumber the lies, we all win.
The authentic are the unheard today. Yet my belief is that the value of what we’ve yet to share is something that would greatly benefit a silent majority, as well as everyone else.
If enough people were to be their true selves, it might even take a little pressure off those narcissists at the top.
Maybe we could help them without challenging their values…?
Bloland concludes, “A willingness to reveal how fundamentally human we really are—in our feelings of inadequacy, unworthiness, and shame as well as of personal strength, pride, and self-acceptance—can help us to feel more authentic to ourselves and to others, and can draw us together in appreciation of what it means to be a member of this flawed but wonderful species.”
In practical terms, you might have to create a cool pseudonym to express and celebrate your true self without being ostracized from society.
But if you’re going to know me, you’re going to know the real me—my limitations and my strengths, my passions and my compulsions, my struggles and my goals.
I see no point in hiding what society calls unacceptable. I want to see myself for what I really am and grow. I want to help others do the same.
“Get good at being the real you,” advises Bial, “Put that person out into the real world. Practice that. You will build your confidence, and your confidence will be based on real experience, practiced honesty, and humility. You will make yourself better and you will become a much more valuable asset to our society.”
My name is A.K. Finn. I write and share stories that celebrate real human experiences. My tag line is “almost human.”
My aim is to get as close to real as I can in a world of pretend.
Some topics I’m sure I’ll come back to often are: identity issues, personality, emotions, communication, facing limitations, contentment, values, generations, reaching goals, and other components of figuring out what it means to be a person in this fast, loud world we can all only really face from within ourselves.
Bial, Deborah. “Don’t Just Be a Brand. Be a Person.” Commencement Address at the University of Rochester. Rochester, NY. 2 Feb. 2016. Speech.
Bloland, Sue Erikson. “Fame: the power and cost of a fantasy.” The Atlantic Nov. 1999: 51-2,54+.
Kreger, Randi. “Behind the Facade: The “False Self” of the Narcissist.” Psychology Today. 28 Nov. 2011.
Loftus, Mary. “The Others Side of Fame” Psychology Today; May/Jun95, Vol. 28 Issue 3, p48
Maciejewski, Jeffrey J. “Whom do you follow? Christian life in the age of Facebook and Twitter.” America 9 Feb. 2015: 16+.