An invitation to slow down and connect
A few days ago, after I shared that I had just completed day five of a thirty day fitness challenge, three people unfollowed me on Instagram. The photo I posted was one of me no doubt looking the same as I had on day one of the challenge, but I felt like superwoman for having survived the first week. It was a good shot—one that captured the joy of the journey and pride in my hard work. I looked happy and healthy. The colours were vibrant. The lighting was good. The accompanying text was (imho) hopeful. So why, I found myself wondering, did three people who thought me worthy of being in their network the day before, suddenly unfollow me?
This is nothing new. Anyone who has an Instagram account has been unfollowed at some point or another, and I’m pretty sure that most of us have felt at least a little bit stung by it. Logically, anyone who does not value posts in which we put our hearts out there is not really worth having in our community, but it still hurts a little.
Most of what is shared online these days is carefully edited and curated. We all long to connect at a deeper, more human level, and yet what we share on Instagram are airbrushed, polished versions of our lives. Versions that, no matter how many times we remind ourselves that what we see in the news feed is not real, we have a tendency to compare ourselves to, and end up feeling more and more inadequate because of. Social media is supposed to be helping us feel more connected to each other, but too often what it seems to be connecting us with is an ever-growing list of ways in which we are not good enough. Don’t get me wrong—following people who push the boundaries of physical strength and grace inspires me to challenge myself, too. But we can also become so focused on fitting in with the shiny, attention grabbing photos that we see moving through our feed that we forget about the journey that led to that perfect handstand on the end of the wharf with snow-capped mountains in the distance.
It seems like we all could use a shift in what we do and how we respond to what other people are doing (online and off). I see how needed this is when I listen to my friends—beautiful, well-educated and hard-working women who have successful careers, are raising happy, well-adjusted children, maintaining strong marriages and serving their communities—talk about how guilty they feel for not being enough. Not having enough time to be better partners, and more available mothers; not going to the gym enough; not having perfect complexions; not being thin enough; not being dressed well enough; not providing enough home-cooked meals for their families; having too much grey hair; not being young enough; not being as loving, patient, kind and supportive as they think they should be. When I encourage them to maybe let go of one or two things so that they don’t feel quite so overwhelmed, the response I usually get is—I will figure it out. I just need to do things more efficiently—then I will be able to make it all work. Their feeling of not-enoughness even extends to not being able to figure out how to be enough.
As a part of the workout challenge I am currently taking part in, I have joined a private support group on Facebook. The purpose of the group is to connect everyone participating in the challenge, and there is plenty of encouragement happening. But I am also seeing so many posts in which people who are barely five days into the month-long challenge talking about how discouraged they are, and how when they look in the mirror or step on the scale they feel disgust with their bodies. Yes, disgust. They actually use this word when referring to their own bodies. So many people beating themselves up for not living up to unrealistic standards that all of us perpetuate by editing out the parts we think people will not value. By not sharing photos of ourselves at the beach until we have the perfect bikini body; by vanishing from public view until we have moved through the toughest part of grief; by refusing to be in photos after we have given birth until we have lost the extra pounds; by only sharing photos of our families and partners in professional shoots where we look like we belong on the cover of Vogue, we are not only disempowering others—we are also disempowering ourselves. I am not immune. I see myself doing many of these things too. We are consciously or unconsciously telling ourselves and everyone else that only in perfection do we have the right to exist. Only in our happiest, most successful moments are we worthy of love.
Not only does only sharing the perfect moments disempower – it also creates a culture in which we have little to no tolerance for what we perceive to be other people’s moments of weakness. We like the posts that show resilience—the comeback after the collapse—but only after it is complete. When people are courageous enough to share the journey of losing a child while they are IN it, for example, or the painful and messy process of getting fit again after childbirth, and all the bruises and failures that happen before finally reaching their goal, we tend to scroll on past their posts—or simply unfollow them so we do not have to witness their struggle.
You may be thinking—but this is just online. Only it isn’t, friends. How we interact online is influencing our offline culture too. A dear friend with three daughters mentioned just the other day how much she dislikes the commonly held belief (by both men and women) that women’s bodies have to be perfect to be worthy of being seen, and yet whenever she looks through family photos she realizes that she is always standing behind her daughters—there, but hidden. Since losing my mother this past year and engaging with others who are in the thick of loss, the same sentiment that comes up again and again is that people might turn up right after loss, but unless you have a super supportive immediate family or very close friends (often people who have experienced tremendous loss themselves), the journey through grief is a very lonely one. I don’t know if we avoid people who are experiencing grief because it reminds us of our own fears, losses and vulnerabilities, but when I speak with people who are grieving, what they share over and over is how much of a burden they feel for grieving their loss. So as to lessen the burden on those around them, they will choose to only share the flickers of hope (however tiny they may be), and process the harder moments on their own. We may be unconscious about how little tolerance we have for the messy parts of being human, but our avoidance of them is still happening, and it undermines both individual and collective resilience.
Here’s the thing: resilience is not a solitary endeavour. I don’t think we were ever intended to survive life-changing challenges and losses alone. Sheryl Sandberg, in her book Option B, which she wrote after losing her husband unexpectedly, and finding herself with a demanding job and raising two children alone, talks about community resiliency. We are familiar with this concept in situations in which we are all struggling together, like we are currently as we move through Covid-19, but we are not usually all struggling at the same time. More often individuals need more support at different points in time. This year I may need more encouragement. Next year, if I am supported in my healing process now, I will be stronger and better able to turn up for someone else. If we create an environment in which community really, truly turns up for each other and holds space for those needing a little extra empowerment to be authentic and real in who they are and how they are feeling, comfortable or not, it seems to me that we will start creating a culture in which resiliency is a virtue the community develops collectively.
Interestingly, I have noticed that experiencing Covid-19 together has made us more compassionate with each other. I notice it in my own life: I have become better at calling friends who have been home-schooling and have had no privacy for nine weeks now just to listen because even though I really have no idea what it is like, I know they are struggling. I have been checking in on friends who are at higher risk to make sure they are alright, and supporting friends who had to quarantine and were not able to get their own supplies. On the other side, I notice people have also become a little more compassionate with me as I move through grief in isolation. We get better at giving each other permission to be real when we are all struggling at the same time.
I would like to propose an idea: that we start celebrating being relatable. Because really, if we are being honest, perfection has never really been possible anyway, and if we ever could attain it what would we do with the rest of our earthly lives? I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t celebrate our successes. But what would it look like if we started sharing the human experience in its entirety, and supporting others to do the same? It might not always be aesthetically pleasing—it will very likely be messy at times. But why did we start valuing our lives based on how other people perceive them, anyway? And since we already know that doing so has clearly not made us very happy, why not try living for how it feels for a change? How would it feel to see photos of our mentors engaged in the process of getting stronger? Failing? Feeling discouraged? I have a feeling it might make witnessing their successes that much sweeter, and at the same time empower everyone to keep striving, and not feel so alone in doing so.
I’ve been working on embracing this whole wild and wonderful human experience a lot lately, both online and off. People have unfollowed me. The number of people I would consider close friends has shrunk tremendously this year. But I know the shift has to start somewhere, and I’m hoping that with time a new community of like-minded people will grow around me. I’m looking for people who want to join me. Yogis working hard to develop the strength to hold a handstand; mothers working on learning to love the miracle of their bodies for themselves and so that their children learn to love their bodies too; farmers planting a new crop for a first time; students attempting to learn a new language; writers trying to get that first book published…. let’s empower ourselves and each other. Let’s turn up for it all—in our own lives, the lives of our current friends and family, and in the lives of potential friends and family members out there we have yet to meet. I’m trading perfection for relatable. Who’s with me?