Why Looking for Belonging on Social Media is a Devil’s Bargain
Social media offers an unprecedented opportunity to be connected across cultures, across time zones, around the world. It changes everything about the way we communicate, from finding new products to connecting with distant loved ones. But there is a dark side to social media. We find it when we use social media to meet offline psychological needs in the online world. Understanding this distinction is super important if you want to live a life of meaning, purpose and belonging.
First, a Few Definitions
What is belonging? Belonging is the knowing that you are at home in your body, in your community, and in the natural world. It’s the felt sense of being right where you are supposed to be, doing what you want to be doing – and knowing that the world values your contribution. Our souls expect us to belong.
Why is belonging important? It isn’t if you don’t care about joy, connection, meaning and purpose. But if you care about these achievements in the game of life, it is vital. For example, if you care about healing the legacy of your father for your children’s benefit, if you care about leaving the world better than you found it for the benefit of future generations, or if you care about living a life of purpose and passion – belonging is on your bus route. Read on to learn more.
A man who belongs doesn’t need to prove anything, he does what he does because it feels right to him. There’s no show or performance, especially not for other men. A man who belongs doesn’t see life as a game to be won, he sees it as a sacred opportunity to grow into the soul he was meant to become. He sees his life, in its highest expression, as a sacred giveaway to the people he most cares about. If he doesn’t know his giveaway, or doesn’t know his people, he works as hard as he can to find them. He knows he needs to belong in order to feel like his life has meaning.
And when a man begins to belong, he can help others find their settledness in their place, in their community. It’s a beautiful, healing cycle that makes the world happier. We know from ecology that complex systems of interconnected beings, each belonging to its own niche, are wildly reproductive, fecund and successful. Consider a rain forest or an ocean. Every single being has a place. They belong. Humans are no different.
Social media significantly stunts our attempts at belonging, but we don’t even know it’s happening. Why? Because social media offers an environment in which we can never really belong. And the engineers designed it that way, on purpose: so that we keep coming back for more. So that we stay just a few steps from truly feeling seen, needed and comfortable – to keep us online – but still, always, scrolling.
But this morphine drip of pseudo-belonging seriously eats our soul. Read on to learn how.
Ads, Attention, and Addiction
So, what’s the purpose of social media? Facebook purports to have a mission of connecting the entire world. Leave aside the question of whether or not this is an outcome the whole world agrees on. We know there’s a profit motive because these tech companies are publicly traded and have a fiduciary obligation to deliver returns to investors. We know that their apps listen to us and present ads to us based on our private conversations—not determined by what we’re most interested in, but what will keep us glued to the platform. So, when we put both of these things together (social media and belonging,) social media doesn’t seem to be a place where we can find a sense of belonging. Why? Because belonging isn’t something that can happen online. It has to happen in the “real world.”
Social Media Holds Us Back From Belonging
We know we belong when we no longer have to perform, conform or “look” the part – or rebel and be different – to express our individuality. We know we belong when we feel as if we’re good enough to be accepted just as we are—and to feel that we’re not faking it, we’re authentic in doing so. We can think of it as a kind of homecoming—like we’ve found our people. We can rest without pushing away or parade around a mask, hiding our true self.
According to depth psychologist Bill Plotkin, this is a developmental process that seems to click for us when our deep psyche is satisfied that we’ve built a robust and socially acceptable enough personality—that also reflects enough of our deep values to feel authentic.
So, what does this have to do with social media? It is our deep psyche that tells us when we belong. This inner “algorithm” if you will wasn’t built for an online world. On social media, we seem to be allowed certain liberties that we don’t get in the real world: such as the ability to delete our identity and start again, the ability to modify our appearance, or not knowing our level of exposure when we make a post since we have no idea how many people might be listening and not commenting (lurking). These are all things that we can do on social media, but not in the real world. The world has guardrails. In the real world, actions we perform have consequences and what we say becomes remembered by the people in our community. In the real world, you can’t say what you might say online, and you can’t delete your account or “lurk.”
In the real world, there is social memory and social accountability.
What Men Most Want
It’s important to recognize that this thing I’m calling belonging is a psychological developmental phase. It’s not something that would be good for some people and not others. All humans want to find a way to belong because it feels good and helps the world make more sense as we age and our priorities shift.
One of the biggest problems that I see with men of any age is the difficulty to express their emotions, and the difficulty to present an authentic personality that the world seems to understand and value. This difficulty essentially represents a struggle to belong. Sure, we know how to “fake” our emotions to belong. And we know how to be super authentic with our emotions (rage, for example) and get kicked out of a meeting. Unconsciously, all of us are working hard to solve the riddle of this developmental phase of belonging. It’s what we’re working on any time we get to a party and are trying to figure out how to act, where to stand, who to talk to, what to talk about, when to leave, etc.
Enter Social Media: The Ultimate Cocktail Party
While we work hard to solve this developmental phase that we need and want so badly (often without really even knowing we need and want it) social media shows up as this perceived opportunity to skip that tough step. We can listen in, but not talk. We can make a declaration, and then go dark. We can show others only the good stuff, and hide the bad. We can pretend we are speaking to millions, while our posts only get a couple likes. What happens is, we get stuck in this developmental holding pattern with our “animal brain” looking for social accountability, recognition and belonging, but find instead the blank echo chamber of the algorithm, which offers us no such thing. Rinse and repeat. And to make matters worse, the algorithm is manipulating our perception of others to create a hall of mirrors which is nothing like what our brain expects and needs to create a viable, authentic identity. It is quite literally a developmental holding pattern. This is a huge problem because, as I said, the one thing that men want in order to feel satisfied and fulfilled is to belong.
You Only Have To Belong Once
For people who can sense that they want to accomplish the goal of belonging—keep in mind that it only needs to be done once. Once we feel that sense of belonging, our psyche knows that we can live in this world. The box is checked, we’ve done it. Then, things begin to shift and the process becomes different, we then start to explore and live our true values as a gift to our families and communities. However, we’ll never accomplish this milestone if we’re subconsciously influenced by the hidden temptations of our animal brain being messed with by the false-promise of becoming a famous influencer.
And it’s difficult. Some have argued the bright retina screen of our cell phones actually reminds us of the glowing of an ancient fire that mesmerizes us and keeps us in trance. Much has been said about the little hits of dopamine we get every time we hear our phone’s notification sound. And looking for what we want from the world and our own souls in the online world – even if we tell ourselves we can’t find it there – creates anxiety when entering the real world without the filter of social media. So we compound the problem. Nobody wants to break it to themselves that we can’t belong in a virtual setting, much less in the actual world. Looking for recognition and belonging over social media makes us less capable of handling rejection and conflict in the offline world – hence the rise in teenage depression and suicide, often attributed to social media.
But we’re real people and we need to feel that we belong in the real world. It’s actually not a step we can skip and expect to feel happy or fulfilled.
What’s the Solution?
Yes, social media is a great tool for communicating our gifts and presenting our authentic and socially acceptable offering (and baby pics), but we can’t take our eye off our progress at solving the developmental step of belonging.
For that, we need to find a real community with real people. We need to find a real passion, and we need to be around other people who share that passion—and support one another. It’s our responsibility to build an authentic and socially acceptable identity to “road test” in the real world, with all the bumps and bruises that come with growing ourselves up in community. In fact, that painful process is what makes genuine community, and makes people trust each other.
Along the way, we need to lean into the obstacles and pain that are going to come—ideally with the help of a developmental therapist or coach. This is becoming a harder and harder task in the real world—and it may be that we’re the last generation of people that can get the resources necessary. How we handle our opportunity to solve the riddle of belonging in the real world defines how many people are going to get that opportunity.
If you’re interested in exploring these concepts further in your own life, reach out and book a free Connect Call and let’s see if I can help.