Why Take a Selfie When You Can Connect?

Ever since selfies became a regular occurrence seen on social media, dating apps, The Oscars, and countless other events, I have been fascinated to understand the motivations of the person taking the picture. In recent years, the research has been mixed on the benefits and consequences to taking selfies.

Some studies indicate that selfies, taken and shared in moderation, can help decrease loneliness and create positive feelings of connection. On the flip side, there’s been many studies that indicates a person who takes selfies-especially often-has greater symptoms of depression, narcissism, and/or psychopathy.

I would encourage my readers to take a few minutes (after reading this post, of course!)and spend time exploring what the current research says. While conducting a meta-analysis detailing the correlations between selfies and mental health sounds appealing to me, this feels too daunting of a task and one I’m not prepared to embark on!

However, I am interested in sharing questions as well as feedback I provide my patients when we discuss their relationship with social media. You may have read that and thought “I don’t have a relationship with social media. I have one with my friends and family, but social media? That doesn’t make any sense.”

Humans have relationships with nearly everything they come in contact with. Your friends, family, and partners are the people you have relationships with; you also have relationships with food, spirituality, your body, and anything else you come in physical or psychological contact with.

All of our relationships are worthy of self-reflection and curiosity. Without this, how would we know if our relationships are healthy for us? Furthermore, our relationships that we have an unhealthy relationship with tend to be our greatest sources of pain.

We all know at least one person who has an unhealthy relationship with drugs or alcohol (or sex, love, gambling, shopping, food, etc.). I’m willing to bet that most of you can picture that one friend who may have an unhealthy relationship with social media, with his/her compulsive selfie-taking being a primary indicator.

With all of my patients, we spend time looking at the various relationships in their lives. We explore a myriad of relationship issues, such as: patterns, emotional responses, functions, benefits, consequences, addictive tendencies, conflict (internally or externally), and how aligned each relationship is with the patient’s value system.

When the topic of social media-selfies in particular-comes up, here are the questions I ask my patients. I would encourage my readers who take selfies to answer the questions as well:

  1. What are you feeling the moment you consider taking a selfie?

Sure, this is probably the most cliche Psychotherapist question ever, but it’s an important one for a few reasons. First, no matter how the person feels, the validation they get from the selfie is fleeting. An illusion, if you will. Nine times out of ten my patient reports “Even with all the likes or comments, I still felt the same before and after sharing the selfie.”

Second, if there’s a pattern of feeling ashamed, lonely, sad, or isolated, there may be deeper rooted issues that are worthy of attention. By recognizing a particular pattern of feelings, we can then pay more attention to finding ways for that person to feel validated and connected more regularly.

Finally, patients often report that they have no idea what they’re feeling; the act has an impulsive or compulsive nature to it. This troubles me because it indicates a need for attention and validation without the emotional awareness nor patience to be vulnerable in an authentically human way.

2. What are you wanting to communicate to the world?

I hear patients say “I want people to think I’m cool, adventurous, and unique,” “I want to inspire others” and “I want to feel connected to others.”

I challenge my patients on each of these responses. I might ask, do you think you’re cool, adventurous, and unique? They usually say no. In reality, what they are communicating is “I need the world to see me in a way I don’t.” Of course, much of their work in therapy is aimed at treating these self-esteem issues.

To those who say they want to selflessly inspire others, I might probe a bit; is this really your motivation? How much of your desire to inspire others is about your own emotional needs?

And for those that want to connect, I might ask them to consider what it would be like to pause, be mindful of their feelings, and be open to the possibility of sharing in person (or even on the phone) whatever it is they are wanting to communicate.

Are you willing to take a risk and be vulnerable with someone else? If not, what’s your fear in doing so? How might it feel to get the connection or support you are seeking via selfies, in person?

3. How would you feel if nobody “liked” your photo?

Predictably, most patients say “awful, embarrassed, or alone.” In my experience, these are the chronic feelings that have led them to my office in the first place.

When you interact with somebody face-to-face, seek validation (something everybody wants and needs), and don’t receive it, you have the opportunity to share how it felt to be invalidated in the moment. It is often these moments in interpersonal relationships that can be indicators to how healthy a duo (or group) is.

While it may feel riskier to verbalize painful feelings in the moment, you increase your odds of getting validation going forward because you’ve provided this person with the data necessary to reduce this error in the future. It also feels empowering to speak your truth and takes more courage to share your feelings with others than via social media/selfies!

Decrease selfies and increase intimacy

I want to end this piece with feedback I often share with couples. When we discuss their relationship with social media, one partner is often frustrated by the other due to the frequency for which he/she posts selfies of their time together.

After spending time exploring questions 1–3 from above, I ask the posting partner what would happen if, instead of posting on social media, you put the camera down, turned to your partner, and communicated to them what you’re wanting others to see?

The response is almost always the same, “I want the world to see how happy and in love we are.” I then ask the patient to consider personalizing the message to their partner, as it may create an intimate experience. Their response? “I want you to know how happy you make me and how much I love you.” Who wouldn’t want to hear this on a more regular basis?

You may be thinking “what about sending my partner selfies? How is this a problem.” It’s a problem because you’re robbing your relationship moments of healthy intimacy. Consider this: instead of getting a selfie from your partner while they’re at a concert, wouldn’t you prefer your partner tell you in person what their experience was like?

Don’t you want to see and hear them express the sights and sounds they witnessed, as well as the feelings they felt? There can such beauty and real connection in the moments when we share our experiences in the presence of others.

Furthermore, to the partner who sends the selfie, don’t deny yourself the joy you may bring (and receive) by sharing an experience with your partner. While you may get instant gratification of your event being known, you are quite possibly disallowing yourself the opportunity to be felt in a powerful and intimate way.

In the end, we’re all craving intimacy. The next time you consider snapping a selfie, pause. Be open to taking a risk, being vulnerable, and being direct with the person or group you are truly wanting to be connected with.