What Does “Progress” Look Like When It Comes to Self-Acceptance?

Blame it on my brain chemistry, cultural conditioning, or perhaps my familial mythology, but the trait I have held onto most consistently in my 27 years on this earth has been self-criticism.

Thankfully, I *sometimes* have the capacity to take a step back and cultivate a sense of humor about how pervasive and relentless my Inner Critic is. Like, I’ll be sick and lying in bed with a cold, playing a loop of rhetorical questions in my head: why did you let yourself get sick? Why didn’t you take oregano oil last week when everyone in your office was sick? Why haven’t you been sleeping more? Why have you been sleeping so much?  [Insert mean rhetorical question here]

In other words: I’m damned if I do, and damned if I don’t. I set myself up for failure almost constantly, and it always proves to be a giant waste of energy and time. It also makes me feel bad, and keeps me from feeling energized about the actions I want to make in my life, which span from doing laundry on a Sunday to writing a book to learning to treat myself with more kindness. Yes, I want to learn how to let go of this critical voice, as profound a loss as it will be.

The irony is that the ostensible “goal” of being so hard on myself seems to be a drive toward progress, ambition, some amorphous goal of “virtue”—more oregano oil, more sleep, less sleep, more water, less smoking pot, fewer calories, more omega 3-fatty-acids, whatever the obsession of the hour is. This continues to be the case even though I’m self-awarely “woke” enough about neuroplasticity to know what the research says: self-criticism is not just unproductive, it’s actively destructive. To motivation, to mental health, and even to the immune system.

The stubborn, rebellious part of me wants to say, “fuck that.” But the bottom line is, If hating yourself worked, I wouldn’t be talking about all this. I’d probably just be an evangelist for self-loathing. Instead, I’m speaking out against it.

***

As I write this today, I am in the midst of a real push to feel happier in my life. Call it a New Year’s Resolution, or the byproduct of far too many years berating myself, but that’s where I am at and I have gathered quite a bit of focus behind it, exhausting and self-referential as it may be to hear about (sorry).

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It’s true.

In addition to #therapy, I’m now also working with a mindfulness life coach to help me be more accountable to concrete goals that support my mental health and happiness. Meditate every day. Write poems again. Smoke less pot. Start a journaling practice. You get the picture. (I’ve even begun writing LETTERS between different “parts” of myself, which reminds me of the Pixar film Inside Out. Quite literally, I write myself letters “from” my Self-Loathing and then imagine my Self-Acceptance as the recipient, who then can respond in the form of another letter.) The practice of Working On Myself is DIFFICULT and time-consuming, but I’ll admit, I feel a tremendous sense of progress.

But when it comes to self-acceptance, what does “progress” mean, anyway?

In today’s techno-solutionist world of measuring our steps with FitBits, recording and analyzing our workouts on Miscellaneous Exercise App, and even tracking our REM cycles during sleep, the vague and idiosyncratic notion of progress—especially for something as mythic as self-acceptance—may seem impossible.

And indeed,  it often feels impossible, or at least it does to me. On some days, I’m easily able to observe my thoughts, habits of mind, and patterns of behavior with a sense of openness, expansion, and curiosity. All of that, to me, are central qualities in self-acceptance. But on other days, I feel myself contract and fall back into old, oppressive patterns. I’ll judge myself, and ask questions that break me down instead of build me up. Sometimes, I feel able to intervene in the cycle of self-judgment and re-route my attitude. Other times, I can’t. Frustratingly, all of these paradoxical steps are part of how I understand progress.

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Redefine your terms. B+ ≠ Failure!

My ability to connect with and actually recognize these things as progress ebbs and flows. Like, last week, when I forgot to take my Zoloft and was completely unable to focus at work, I sank and sank and sank until my inner dialogue was so recursively negative that it felt inescapable. I was cognizant that talking to myself with such judgment was costing me, and I kept doing it. The voice of Self-Acceptance seemed nowhere to be found. It wasn’t, the day ended (with a couple of glasses of wine), and the next day came around. I took my Zoloft, got a good amount done, and recognized that some days are worse than others. Perhaps being able to bounce back so quickly was progress in and of itself.

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Embrace the paradoxes of progress.

What’s deeply interesting to me is that horrible, regressive days like this can exist alongside days in which I feel so self-accepting that I’m almost unrecognizable to myself. Another day last week, to provide a counter-example, I found myself just about to spiral on the heels of receiving an angry letter from an ex. The depths of depression felt so close within my reach, and I knew that forcing myself to work would just lead to procrastination, self-judgment about said procrastination, and a negative cycle from there. I decided with discernment—and with kindness—to read my book instead of finish an article with an upcoming deadline. The progress in this instance wasn’t something anyone else could understand as a personal victory. It wasn’t an extra set of steps to record on my FitBit or dollars to watch flow into my bank account. But it was evidence of my growing ability to accept myself, the very goal I set out to achieve once I began this recent, concerted effort to be a happier person.

How can this be useful to you?

It may or not be, depending on how type-A you are, and how willing you are to regard experimentation as a rigorous practice.

I am, admittedly, type-A, so I am actually quite resistant to the notion that anything, self-acceptance or otherwise, isn’t something you can capital-a Achieve in a singular event. It also, counter-intuitively, won’t always feel good or victorious. Sometimes, accepting yourself means feeling fat and lazy and horrible, and noticing that—with a recognition of the pain it is causing you, and what might mitigate it.

Sometimes, it may mean feeling fat and lazy and horrible and “intervening” with a breath, and a reminder that the mind is playing tricks on you. Perhaps the breath helps, and perhaps it doesn’t. “Success” in these instances is irrelevant. It is all self-acceptance, and it is all progress.

The key bit is noticing, which is certainly not something you can accurately measure and understand with a device or app. If you can breathe, you can notice. And if you’re doing both of those things, you are making progress.

The Stories We Tell Ourselves

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Joan Didion famously began her 1979 collection The White Album. The aphoristic phrase later became the title of her 2006 book of collected non-fiction. While there is a certain melodrama in Didion’s observation about survival, it’s strangely accurate, pinpointing that drama, or perhaps even melodrama, comprises the foundation of what it means to be human. 

That is, if we woke up each morning without telling ourselves a certain set of stories—often both unconscious and implicit—we would be at a loss. If someone asks, “What’s your name?” each of our answers is a story. So too are our likes, dislikes, jobs, habits, past times. Our lives are all fueled by self-created (and self-perpetuated) narratives. 

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“I will never be as good as Joan Didion” = a story I tell myself as a writer

Culturally, the very idea of “storytelling” is comforting (although it’s become a bit of an annoying buzzword in the TED-talk-worshipping zeitgeist of 2017). When we were children, most of us asked our caregivers for story-time before bed. Fairy tales and myths transported us to emotional locations beyond the isolated islands of our thoughts. And yet even humanity’s psychological status quo (read: anxiety) is constructed out of narratives. (“I am out of breath. Why am I out of breath? Will I ever breathe again?”) As someone with panic disorder, this parenthetical example is **DERIVED FROM PERSONAL EXPERIENCE**

Anxiety is an evolutionary mechanism: as a species, we have adapted what contemporary neuroscientists call “negativity bias,” a hard-wired impulse to locate and identify threats (internal or external) all around us. There is always a metaphorical lion on the side of the road to be avoided. Telling ourselves that—repeatedly, and in whatever variation depending on our circumstances—gives us answers, meaning, something to grab onto.

Our habits are also stories. “I’m a morning person.” “I drink too much.” “I hate exercise.” Data shows that humans repeat 40% of all behaviors every day. Are we really “creatures of habit” or are our habits largely the product of the stories we tell ourselves? I’d hazard the guess that the answer is a combination. We stick to our habits (partially as a result of the stories we perpetuate about them) because they function as evidence of our survival mechanism. “I’ve eaten cereal almost every morning since I was 10. Therefore, cereal has enabled my survival up to this point.” The mere idea of giving up eating cereal could give me heart failure. God forbid, but you get my point.

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Dana Schutz’s Swimming, Smoking, Crying. A story I relate to.

Whether or not we’re aware of the particular stories we tell ourselves may not make a difference in our actual quality of life. I’ve been in therapy since age 9, and have definitely rehearsed psychodynamic analyses with my various therapists over the years. I like to think I’m pretty aware of the stories I have told (and still do tell) myself, but I am also comfortable admitting that my awareness hasn’t changed much when it comes to my happiness in a big picture way. But knowing the impact of the stories I tell myself helps me expand the aperture of my perspective. If, say, I am feeling shitty, anxious, and depressed, I try to invite myself to ask how much of my sinking mood is the byproduct of a myth I’ve written about who I am and why my thoughts operate the way they do.

By the way, doing so doesn’t really me feel better, but having the emotional tools to ask myself the question provides me with a palpable sense of empowerment and freedom. Rather than feeling like a narrator, devoid of subjectivity, reading off the “page” of my stories, I act as a protagonist. I still may be telling myself a story. But the narrative unfolds in the present, rather than the past, tense. Selfhood itself is a narrative.

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Oprah knows her stories. FOR SURE.

During Thanksgiving and the “Holiday Season” in general, everyone seems either to complain about their impossible, right-wing relatives who they can’t even stand chatting with at dinner, or the fact that just being around family makes them crazy. I fall into the latter bucket. Being around parents—and the evocative artifacts of what “home” used to mean— tend to bring out the worst, most fossilized stories that we’ve ever told ourselves—including the ones that date back to junior high school. Like, no, brain, I am no longer a depressed anorexic 14 year old….but thanks for reminding me that I used to be that, and think that. There is a certain comfort in remembering the evolutionary mechanism at work. You may still feel like shit, but at least remind yourself that YOU ARE A MAMMAL.

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No, you’re not a fish. You are a mammal.

Like most people, I sometimes wake up wishing that I had a clean, structured understanding of what my purpose was on this earth, and how I could best enact it. There’s a reason people join cults, nurture their SoulCycle obsessions, or become vegan. We all have control issues (#deathanxiety), and the pursuit of external identity-markers gives us a break from having to create and uphold our own, individualized stories of meaning and purpose. Remember that Marx called religion “the opium of the people” for a similar reason—in an attempt to point out the pleasure we derive from dogma, those pre-existing ideological structures that lessen the weight of personal responsibility—to define our own ethics, taste, politics, spirituality. But at the end of the day, every religion can be traced back to a cluster of stories.

You may feel an instinct to judge the stories you tell yourself as “bad” or “good.” (Guess what? That’s evolution too.) Certainly, some of the stories we tell ourselves are productive and inspire us to make positive changes, while others are regressive and keep us imprisoned in the chains of old, bad habits that we’ve simply practiced for too long. But there is nothing valuable about making blanket judgments about our conditioning and the ways we enact it, internally and externally. We will never stop telling stories. The most powerful thing we can do to free ourselves from the ones that hold us back is to notice them.

Am I Practicing Self-Acceptance or Being Lazy?

Despite my successful memorization of New Age-y aphorisms about being present and loving oneself, I struggle quite a bit with self-acceptance.

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I may have a mugwort sprig next to my bed, but I’m not perfect.

Our culture celebrates clenched fists, tightened jaws, fierce competition, and, to a certain extent, self-judgment. If you’re “pushing yourself,” an undeniably virtuous thing, you’re presumably having to judge your behaviors, and your definition of what it means to be doing “enough,” that artfully amorphous term. 

This framework is what encourages many of us (hi!) to lock ourselves in a cycle of self-loathing.

I didn’t do enough today. I ate really gross shit last week. I don’t work out enough. My writing sucks. I procrastinate too much. &c.

The intention behind self-loathing for many of us, I think, is protection. Beating up on ourselves can become a convenient refrain, a way of reminding ourselves of the desire to fulfill [x goal] Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger (Daft Punk!).

e.g. If I beat up on myself for how many french fries I ate last night, I will prove to myself that my goal is to be healthier. Hopefully, I will even choose to eat a salad instead today.

Of course, feeling shitty about yourself is a shitty motivator. Myriad studies have actually proven this (such as this recent one), and have also proven the benefits of self-compassion. When we meet ourselves where we’re at—no matter how “successful” we are in practice—we enable ourselves to achieve more. IT’S SCIENCE.

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From now on, let’s pretend a “B+” means BE POSITIVE.

But truth be told, the line between self-acceptance and laziness isn’t always clear. My ongoing struggle in therapy is to figure out when I’m enacting positive behaviors, and when I’m rationalizing self-destructive behaviors. I can be quite convincing, I’m afraid. #DENIAL.

For instance, this question comes up a lot in my meditation practice. I like to meditate every day, and consider it an important ritual for my spiritual, mental, emotional, and physical well-being. But because I also have a tendency to over-schedule myself and hold myself to too many standards, my “requirement” to meditate every day sometimes feels like a chore. Sometimes it is, and sometimes it’s not—and it’s something I have to “push myself” to do.

Say I get caught in the rain during my commute after a long-day at work. Upon arriving home, I may not want to meditate. I may want, instead, to drink a beer and binge eat french fries. While that decision may not be capital-H Healthy according to some static definition of Self-Care, it may be a healthy decision for me in that moment.

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Sometimes, you just want to read Keats and drink tequila—and that’s OK!

But, alternatively, say my long day at work involved a lot of ruminating, and stewing in negative thoughts. Meditation might be exactly the thing I need upon coming home—either in addition to the beer and french fries, or instead of it (plus some other dinner option). The hard thing is that it really depends on the situation, and my specific FEELING about what would be self-caring in that particular moment. Unfortunately, living in an EMBODIED WAY and trusting our intuition isn’t something our culture applauds us for, either.

Long story short, sometimes “pushing yourself” is an act of self-care, and sometimes it’s the stark opposite. “Pushing myself” to meditate when I’m tired might be a fantastic idea on one day, and an unnecessary form of “punishment” on another. As I have said before, can sometimes be an insidious coexistence of self-awareness and denial in the mind.

The most important thing is taking a step back from all the mental clutter, owning your shit, and making decisions independent of it.

What do I mean by “your shit”? Well, put simply: our thoughts—our sense of what our experience is like outside of what it feels like in our bodies. Ask yourself, “What are my go-to ways of narrating my life?”

In my case, I tell myself the story every day that I am Type-A, hard on myself, and overly-analytical. This narrative is pretty accurate, factually-speaking, but it has also led me to some pretty destructive behaviors. For example, I spent many years smoking pot around the clock, because “I deserved it.” “It made me chill out—and even made me smarter.” If I could achieve everything I wanted (straight As, regular visits to the gym, social interactions, etc) while still being stoned all the time, I was deserving of self-acceptance.

In hindsight, I was rationalizing a bad habit. Whether or not I dismiss my many years of denial as “lazy” isn’t really the point (experts would probably suggest avoiding negative labels). The more important takeaway is the power of storytelling. We are capable of creating the right dramatic scenario in our minds to support our behaviors and thought-patterns. And it’s up to us, too, to recognize that—and make changes anyway.

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Look at me following my own advice (NOT!)

What I’m saying may not sound particularly encouraging, but the bottom line is that the knowledge we hold in our bodies often has way more wisdom than what is in our minds. When I actually allow myself to feel EMBODIED, rather than relying on a story of what my experience is like, my sense of what self-care means is flexible and intelligent. Sometimes, self-care is running. Sometimes it’s smoking weed. Sometimes it’s simply saying “It’s OK that I smoked weed even though I am trying not to self-medicate.”

Rarely, if ever, is self-flagellation a productive decision.  

So, if you’ve eaten too many french fries and feel like shit in your body, perhaps you’ll eat something green tomorrow. But I would hazard the guess that saying “It’s OK that I binge ate french fries” will make you feel much better in your body.

It takes quite a bit of courage to say “It’s OK.” Try it. Push yourself.

The Myth of the Authentic Self

“Art is restoration: the idea is to repair the damages that are inflicted in life, to make something that is fragmented—which is what fear and anxiety do to a person—into something whole.” -Louise Bourgeois 

Upon meeting me, most people wouldn’t assume I was anxious—and I’m not talking about anxiety-the-feeling, I’m talking about anxiety-the-disorder. I’ve been told again and again that I am “chill,” “laid back,” “uninhibited,” “authentic.” Maybe these things are true—but strangely, it seems they fill the space where my deepest anxiety lives,  a space I keep so well-protected so that it may never be perceptible.

Growing up, I didn’t talk about my anxiety—nor did I really have a vocabulary for it in my own head. I knew I was ashamed of it—whatever it was—and thought for sure that everyone else was just living life, hanging out, not overthinking everything. Feeling pleasure. I remember many sleepless nights on my Little Mermaid sheets, which depicted underwater scenes featuring lots of bubbles, coral, Ariel, Flounder, and Sebastian. I was afraid of swimming at the time and worried that if I fell asleep I would drown. I didn’t tell my parents, or my sister, and I kept quiet, growing increasingly tired with each night I lay awake, waiting for it to get light again. At the time, I was sort of applauded within the family unit for being resilient, easy-going, notably unflappable.

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Me as a kid. Don’t I look repressed? :D 

When I was 9-years-old, I found what I thought was a remarkable solution to the pain of my rumination and anxiety about disorder in my world. I began measuring everything in our apartment with a ruler (I preferred the metric system), and organizing all household objects (from medicine cabinet bottles to magazine stacks to kitchen implements) according to size and color order. When I would do these rituals, I would feel calm—at least momentarily; I had access to a sense of pleasure, a sense of meaning, belonging. My mind had an anchor, and that anchor was something whose position I could control.

My parents thought otherwise. My mom brought me to a behavioral therapist, where I was diagnosed with OCD (I didn’t really think anything of it), and got to play each week with a farm animal themed sandbox. The therapist took pictures of my creations each week. It seemed that I liked to keep the animals in cages. The farm could be a place of structural hygiene, one that would rinse me of my worries. Looking back, I wonder if the idea was for me to get comfortable getting messy in the context of play—where I could see the beauty of exploring my imagination and its imperfect edges.

It didn’t work, and I don’t remember when I stopped going. Now, I am not sure I would encage the farm animals (if I were to engage in this exercise again), but I am confident that I would organize the animals in a way that had an irrational message, decipherable only to me. Much like the patterns of 4 and its multiples that I count in my head on days when I feel particularly anxious. The symptoms of OCD are unsurprisingly exacerbated by anxiety-producing circumstances or triggers.

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It’s cool to objectify your anxiety. #dialecticalmaterialism

I don’t mean to express judgment around the fact that I would encode my obsessive-compulsive structures with meaning. In fact, I have come to use my anxiety—my paranoia, my tendency to repeat things in my head, my predilection for organizing the number 4 in various mathematical ways—in my poetry, and my writing more generally. It sounds so cheesy and lame, but I have learned to alchemize my control issues in my creative work—and the process emerged organically. A poetry professor I had once told me my poems made her feel like the speaker was trapped, repeating herself until she figured out how to grasp reality with a proper sense of language and experience. In the context of poetry, my ferocious thirst for control (and my allergy to disorder) is something that makes my voice strong. In my life outside writing, I try to tell myself—and believe myself—that my shitty parts can give me strength, and that there can be a kind of dynamic and ongoing dialogue between my more-evolved and less-evolved selves.

It was only recently that I began telling the world, telling myself really, about the things going on in my brain. Sure, I had been in therapy since age 9 (with a bit of on and off between ages 9 and 12), but I was repressed and ashamed of my deeply-rooted patterns of paranoia and obsessive-compulsive rituals. When I got to college, an environment of newness and “hope,” it was as if I had made a deliberate choice to manipulate the world around me—and myself—into thinking I was honest, open, always willing to say what was on my mind. Now, I think I really am these things, but so much of that began from a successful performance. I stepped into the shoes of someone who wouldn’t be so stifled by my own mechanism of denial that I then became that person.

Giving myself that freedom was a profound gesture of control—actual control, not medicine-cabinet-organizing control, but one that has gotten me into trouble over the past ten or so years—ever since I began “owning” who I was a little more. I think because I struggle with anxiety and overthink literally everything, I try so, so hard to identify with others, to anticipate what they might be feeling, what kinds of jokes might resonate with them, what vocabulary will be legible to them. In a place of being shut down with anxiety and its accompanying denial, this part of me doesn’t have adverse effects. I simply stew in my own ruminations.

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Zoloft is the shit. But this Instagram is an example of my readily revealing a lot, which sometimes I feel keeps me guarded in other ways.

Now, as someone who has simply decided to SPEAK MY MIND ALL THE TIME (and I like to keep decisions), this pattern makes me guard myself with the prickly armor of irony. I open myself up in ways that will resonate with people, and then hide the parts of myself that I don’t want to reveal. Being myself can become a matter of convenience and validation—people see me the way that I have always wanted to feel, and I can still get away with shrouding my self-loathing.

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This photo = what lit critic Wayne Booth would call “irony with teeth in it.” 

I am not writing all of this in an attempt to broadcast a navel-gazing journal entry about why I’m such a fucked up person, or why I’m so evolved because I recognize that I’m a fucked up person, but to talk about the necessarily non-linear journey of personal growth. The movement of my march toward mental health and well-being has not been one of steady cadence, nor has it been a victorious ascent. There are wonderful things about the sense of self I have created, a person whose value system is grounded in honesty. But it also means that I put pressure on myself to be that person, and that pressure creates an echo chamber sometimes that actively invites me to keep a lot inside.

Perhaps I don’t need to share those hidden parts—maybe that wouldn’t even be productive. The bottom line is that authenticity is not something we can really achieve. We can engage with it, critique it, use it as a reference point to understand who we are in reference to our self-perception, others, our experiences and so on. Yet the Platonic form of each of our authentic selves is a myth, and letting go of that is where the real freedom emerges.

On LinkedIn

 

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LinkedIn makes me so uncomfortable!

When I first signed up for a LinkedIn account the summer after my junior year of college, I was deeply fascinated and also horrified that there was actually a site where people posted their academic and professional accolades for the entire Internet to see.

Of course, my fascination and horror prompted me to go ahead and participate in the insane charade of online self-promotion and networking as well: I made a profile, added a photo that was the closest thing I had to a headshot, and decorated my profile with all of my poetry prizes, boring college-y internships, and extracurricular activities from years past. I was ready to prove my worth.

What ensued in the coming weeks was even more bizarre: I found myself getting LinkedIn requests from all of these people I peripherally knew from high school and college: people I’d been in a forgettable seminar with or had once sat next to in the freshman dining hall. After one fleeting convo over dining hall froyo, there we were, networking digitally on LinkedIn.

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Literally, I ate froyo 2x/day, every day my freshman year.

I remember consciously asking myself, “Does this person really want to network with me?” and quickly answering on my behalf: “Definitely not.” After all, I was still in college and had no professional credentials whatsoever, other than a smattering of not-impressive unpaid internships in fields I didn’t even want to pursue. According to my LinkedIn, I was a staunch environmentalist ready to head into the world of non-profits. (Not true.) There was no reason anyone would want to network with me. So why did people want to join my professional network?

On one level, I have no fucking clue—it’s insane. On another, there’s no real need for an explanation, as that is precisely what LinkedIn is for, why it exists. The only reason I made a profile for myself to begin with was because I knew there was actually a platform out there where people were offering up their professional credentials as stalking material. I had to be a part of it, too.

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LinkedIn’s Corporate Slogan: “Relationships matter.”

And of course, I too engage in idle-LinkedIn activity now and again (read: frequently!?) much like my peers past and present. If I see someone I know, whether from school, work, or one-off freelance projects, I (unconsciously) think, “Of course I want to request to add you to my professional network.” It is shameless—and perhaps that’s just the way it is, or even the way it should be. Let me remind us once again: the entire platform is built on an assumption that all users will accept their unapologetic desire to size each other up based on concrete markers of success, achievement, status—the number of members in our professional network, whether or not we have a Premium account, how many LinkedIn articles we’ve posted recently.

Let me be clear: I don’t mean to dismiss LinkedIn entirely. I get that LinkedIn primarily exists as a pragmatic platform for HR recruiters to find talent, for jobseekers to find recruiters and open positions, for me to ask that random person from my freshman year seminar who now works at Google if she would mind “connecting” me to someone on her “team” to get me a six-figure salary job in corporate communications, stuff like that. And for that it is a useful service. But TBH, much of the way I use LinkedIn is highly un-pragmatic, at least when it comes to my career.

I remember asking my dad once, “Why didn’t you friend me back on LinkedIn?” and he straightforwardly responded by saying simply that one does not “friend” someone else on LinkedIn. You ask them to join your professional network. But I would argue that many folks my age (~25-30) use LinkedIn in a pseudo-Facebook-y way. What I mean is this: I unthinkingly ask to add people to “my network” on LinkedIn if I know them even the slightest bit, even if I’ve met them once. Because: that’s exactly what I do on Facebook (that’s the world we live in and it’s weird). But also, #yolo, e.g. why the fuck not? What if they end up doing something really rad and recruiting me to do it with them? That person from seminar might turn out to be the next President of the United States. OF COURSE I WANT THEM IN MY PROFESSIONAL NETWORK.

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Me and my dad; we are now FRIENDS on LinkedIn (and IRL, duh).

And yet, in comparing LinkedIn to Facebook, I realize that on LinkedIn, you can see people’s profiles even if you’re not “friends” (JK!). On Facebook, however, one needs to “friend” another  in order to stalk their shit.

Truth be told, I often don’t add people to my network who I “stalk” on LinkedIn. Instead, I often gather Facebook-intel as fodder to determine who I want to check out on LinkedIn. In summary, my most frequent activity on LinkedIn is trolling people I don’t know, who are the significant others of ANY INDIVIDUAL EVER IN MY HISTORY who I’ve found attractive. I’m not talking about LinkedIn stalking the current girlfriend of my serious ex-boyfriend. I’m talking about the girlfriend of the guy I thought was cute for a second in my physics class, and who I tried to flirt with (unsuccessfully) via text a couple of times. Because I find out about these relationships on Facebook, I am able to gather material. When I feel struck with an acidic pang of inadequacy, a la, “Wait, why didn’t he want to flirt back via text when we were 16 and in physics class together?” I take to LinkedIn as a way to size up what the current partner has that I don’t.

y = mx + b

[aka: what i remember from physics!]

This behavior is totally deranged, supremely narcissistic, and completely unproductive. But I also feel like it’s important (and productive, actually) to acknowledge to ourselves how we really use social media. No I don’t use LinkedIn to find jobs or contacts for freelance writing. No editor would ever want to talk to me on LinkedIn, and I can’t even imagine responding to a LinkedIn message. If people want to talk to me, they should go to my website. (With all that said, I’d be down to make actual professional connections on LinkedIn).

But yes: I use LinkedIn to see what my high school nemesis is doing with her life, or what her major was in college and when she decided to work in publicity for a non-profit. After all, she made out several times with my crush from 7th grade. I need to be able to make sense of her credentials.

The punch line here, I think, is that the more “mainstream” channels of social media—especially Facebook and Instagram—breed this kind of culture of comparison and one upsmanship, conscious or not. We are constantly constructing avatars of ourselves online—from the relationships we’re in, to the food we eat to the vacations we take—and we are, quite literally, sharing them for the world to see. We want others to compare themselves to us, because that’s what we’re doing.

And so, to me, LinkedIn is perhaps the most fascinating platform because it renders all of those dynamics explicit. My motto on LinkedIn is like, YES I AM LOOKING AT YOU TO SEE YOUR CREDENTIALS (And, by extension, YES I KNOW THAT YOU WILL THUS LOOK AT MY CREDENTIALS AND WE WILL COMPARE OURSELVES TO EACH OTHER.) It’s awful, but also full of awe (awe-full).

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I’ve always loved the etymology of awful. It’s related to awe u no.

Sure, I think it’s probably a good idea for all of us to scale back on social media. But insofar as we, as a culture, are addicted to it, and the fact that capitalism today wouldn’t survive without it,  the best thing we can do is be as conscious as we can about why we use social media in the ways we do. Recognizing that I compare myself to people on LinkedIn doesn’t make the habit better, more righteous, or healthy for me as an individual, but it provides interesting material for recursive inquiry, and self-examination. Plus, it’s also kind of hilarious, and a genuinely provocative jumping off point for conversations about ~*the zeitgeist.*~ The only way out is through, and talking about all the weird shit we do online is probably a good way to actually open up to people. And to quote LinkedIn’s corporate slogan, “Relationships matter.”