The Pros and Pros (and Pros) of Unplugging
I’m writing this on the plane back to San Diego from Boston, having just completed my second term of college. It’s remarkable for me to think of how different things are now from the end of last term. As cliché as it sounds, the past two and a half months have truly been a roller coaster. I think I’ve gone from being the most depressed I’ve ever been in my life to the most personally fulfilled. And I think I’ve gotten there by dialing it way back on social media.
Someone asked me recently how I would respond to the classic interview question, What’s your biggest weakness? And mine, without a doubt, is that I care far too much about what other people think of me. It’s not even something that I think about consciously, but when I look back on past things I chose to do or not do, I can always detect the influence of other people’s opinions. And that makes me incredibly sad, because I wonder how much of what I do and think really comes from me.
It’s hard to get unplugged these days. Especially in the beginning stages of college, I think there’s especially a pressure to remain active on social media. You haven’t let go of the people you knew from home, you haven’t established yourself enough in this new place. Let’s everybody be honest here: it’s to show off! You want to show off to your new college friends how cool you are, and you want to show off to your old high school friends how much fun you’re having. You want people you don’t know or don’t think about or even genuinely don’t like, to look at your pictures and say, Man I wish I could be them. It’s a little bit ridiculous.
I had depression this term. I couldn’t eat, sleep, or find pleasure in any activities. I stopped eating because it just seemed like a time-suck. I didn’t look forward to waking up the next day: I knew it would just be a continuation of this cycle of going through motions to feel something besides an absolutely, completely encompassing, tiredness of still being me. I regularly stayed up till 3 or 4 a.m. every night with incessantly negative thoughts racing through my mind, unable to fall asleep because of these self-generated mantras of inferiority. I started taking melatonin every night just to have some rest from myself, and that temporary relief from being awake and aware of myself became the first thing I would look forward to every morning.
And still, the curation of the external image! I posted happy pictures, with happy captions, and commented happy things on other people’s equally happy posts.
When did it become more important to me that I look happy, rather than actually feel happy?
My boyfriend and I broke up two weeks into the term. It was two weeks after I’d last seen him, and we’d spent New Year’s Eve together; you can imagine that I was pretty caught off guard. I’d truly never believed in broken hearts until it happened to me. We ended on pretty good terms. Agreed not to talk for a while, but promised that we could be friendly, if not friends.
Of course, relationship amateur that we both were, we relapsed. Our breakup the second time around was not so pleasant. He told me he hated me, blocked me on everything, blocked my friends. Told me he wanted to say that he just needed space for a while, but the truth was that he needed space for ever. That’s almost an exact quote; I had to quote him because honestly, it was pretty clever the way he worded it. Kind of poetic.
So I can’t pretend that it’s because I had this transcendent desire to improve myself and focus more on real interactions that I took myself off social media. I deleted everything because I didn’t want to be reminded of his hatred. How hurtful it is for someone to tell you they love you and hate you in the span of one hour. How inconsequential it makes you feel. I claim my greatest weakness as the motivation behind unplugging myself: I deleted social media because I wanted to run away from his opinion of me.
Funnily enough, a choice I made out of fear of others’ opinions helped me overcome that fear. Not entirely, but I’m working towards it.
It was thrilling to realize how much free time I had without the burden of checking what people were doing, of updating them on what I was doing. And I didn’t even miss it, because I’d never really cared what they were doing. I was so happy to find that I not only wasn’t missing out on anything, but actually had room to add a lot to my life.
I became more face-timey: asking people to have lunch with me, or study together, or grab a coffee. I stopped reading comments and notifications, and read instead a play, an article, the book on the Pol Pot Regime that I’d meant to start all term.
My study sessions grew immensely more productive. I got through much more work than I’d thought was possible in the amounts of time I had, and found that as my productivity level went up, so did my mood. I left the library feeling genuinely pleased of myself, knowing that every minute had been well spent. Even my breaks were more productive: I’d chat with whoever I was studying with for a few minutes after finishing one assignment. Hear about their day, complain about our assignments, laugh about something our professors said. And that was much better than scrolling through my feed on Instagram.
I made more of an effort to see people in person. My first term of college, it was rare for me to eat or study with other people. That was a combination of a couple of things, but the biggest factor was again, that I cared too much about what other people thought. I wouldn’t dare to ask people to spend time with me, for fear that they would think me too clingy or annoying. I truly believe that such a simple action as disabling my Instagram account helped me shed some of this fear. It’s easy to get used to the idea that people are looking your life to pass judgement, but it isn’t true. People aren’t always comparing, examining, or labelling. Sometimes, they just look at you.
It is important to consider the impact that social media has on the way we perceive ourselves in real interactions. I say real interactions, because I am realizing more with each day that conversations on social media are not; my happy-happy posts during what I have deemed My Period of Great Misery this term should be proof enough of that. As social media becomes more and more prevalent in our everyday lives, it grows increasingly important that we consider the mentality that it fosters. If we continue to enforce the idea that we have to play roles and curate our image online, the line quickly becomes blurry as to when to stop.
We go out to eat with friends not because we enjoy the food and conversation, but because we want others to think that we keep up active social lives. We volunteer not because we want to better a community, but because we want others to think we are generous. We start to show kindness to others not out of genuine affection, but because we want others to perceive us as kind.
Who are these anonymous others that we care so much about? They’re a shield, to deflect your harshest critic. If you can claim the approval of the unknown masses, you do not have to ask yourself if you actually spend quality time with your friends, if you really care about your community, and if you truly are kind.
I swore off social media because I didn’t want to think about what my ex-boyfriend thinks of me. When I noticed an effective bump in my study habits, I decided to swear it off until my finals were over. Now, as I’m flying home and honestly feeling better about myself than I have in a long time, I’m considering swearing it off entirely. I don’t think I would miss it.