Are We All Just Navel-Gazing?
What is self-actualization when you remove hashtag-happy culture?
Listen to the audio of today’s Substack, read by me:
Thanks to Mariann for pointing my attention to a truly fascinating NYT guest essay by Tara Isabella Burton, entitled “The Problem With Letting Therapy-Speak Invade Everything.”
From my perspective, the basic gist of this thought-provoking piece is that Instagram therapy—i.e., normalizing catchphrases that allude to social media-ready self-growth (but might actually be at least somewhat co-opting real therapy)—has created a nation of people who narrow-mindedly focus on our own feelings at the detriment of others.
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Keep in mind that accomplishing both things—prioritizing our own feelings while also considering and empathizing with others—is not only possible, but it’s a pretty awesome way to go through life. Even in twelve-step circles, when boundaries need to be drawn, one is encouraged to “detach with love”; as in, not with biting hashtags.
The article states:
It’s not just that this Instagram therapy gives its adherents a convenient excuse to bail on dinner parties or silence our phones when friends text us in tears. Rather, it’s that according to this newly prevalent gospel of self-actualization, the pursuit of private happiness has increasingly become culturally celebrated as the ultimate goal. The “authentic” self — to use another common buzzword — is characterized by personal desires and individual longings. Conversely, obligations, including obligations to imperfect and often downright difficult people, are often framed as mere unpleasant circumstance, inimical to the solitary pursuit of our best life. Feelings have become the authoritative guide to what we ought to do, at the expense of our sense of communal obligations.
One thing I find fascinating about this piece is that the practice of “self-care” (or “#selfcare”) has been far removed from what Audre Lorde called “an act of political warfare.” In other words, Lorde saw self-care as crucial to activism—as opposed to an excuse to get a mani-pedi.
(Not that there’s anything wrong with getting a mani-pedi, by the way. I’m just pointing out the world of differences between the roots of self-care and where we are now, culturally.)
The article goes on to examine how a “highly subjectivist form of individualism” (as sociology professor Eva Illouz stated)—the brand of navel-gazing that social media perpetuates, validates, and celebrates—has overridden the necessity to pursue self-actualization through community.
We are too busy conflating feelings as facts (and finding the perfect hashtag to make our point) to examine 1. the bigger picture, and 2. the impact that our words and actions have on others. In short, we are self-obsessed, and every “like” we get cheers us on.
This article articulated something that I’ve felt deeply but haven’t known how to express. For those of us who grew up without the internet, we tend to have a love-hate relationship with social media. There’s something about it I find truly loathsome, and hot-headed discussions often found in the comments section somehow adds to the great divide of both our country and our world. We exist in silos, finding gratification from therapy buzzwords that have mostly lost their meaning.
Maybe I’m just being righteous—and/or just as self-focused. When my memoir came out back in 2016, I was nastily accused (admittedly, by a former lover) that my career was very me-focused and ego-based. Now, I’m a writer, so I totally get that, intrinsically, I must have a healthy ego. And I’ve certainly had my share of satisfying therapy-ish hashtag moments, where the “likes” I received made me feel that the internet machine was successfully letting others “hold space” for me—when, in reality, all anyone was doing was scrolling and hitting “like” along the way.
But I don’t think a “like” has much of anything to do with self-growth, you know? This article went into the weeds of why, shedding light on a dark place that modern-day society has built up.
The article continues:
I believe the growing popularity of therapy discourse is less about generational or cultural selfishness than it is about a cultural hunger: the shared need for a framework to talk about the questions foundational to our existence as human beings and a shared sense that the good life relies on more than just our material circumstances.
As the article points out, these frameworks once existed largely in religious settings. Even I remember taking part in an ongoing rabbi discussion as a kid. Each week, a group of teenagers (including me) would discuss difficult moral topics—such as human euthanasia (for the record, I’m a fan). I can only imagine trying to work my thoughts out about that subject while sitting alone in my room, scrolling.
Or maybe I would have never worked out my thoughts on it because I would have been too busy focusing on my own feelings about my feelings and how I feel about the feels. Feel me? #allthefeels #holdingspace
Perhaps this article struck me so much because I’m just as interested in helping people avoid burnout as I am in pursuing advocacy efforts for marginalized communities, and I am sad by how co-opted real self-care has become—especially in activist circles.
I fully believe that our stories are indeed central to social justice, but this article was a stark reminder that nothing begins and ends with just us—except for maybe our belly buttons … but even those were once connected to someone else.
Love a post that cites Audre Lorde. Thanks!
Thank you for sharing, friend!
I self-care about you!