A Concept: Social Media, Trees, and You
Updated: Apr 2, 2021
Author: Sarah Feng
Whenever I feel overwhelmed, I do one of two things: I clean my room or I delete the social media apps clogging up my phone. With the emergence of COVID-19 in March keeping me inside, I began to spend more time on social media. The clothes littered on the floor of my room slowly began to build up, and the insecurities in the back of my mind slowly began to form. Every now and then, I chose between the two options: clean or get off my phone. The latter option was probably more effective, but I always started thinking of the reasons I needed all those applications before making the deletions. I need WeChat to call my grandparents in China. I need Instagram to check my group chats. I need Snapchat to stay in contact with my friends. Let’s face it: people weren’t lining up to talk to me. Still, I convinced myself that my excuses were valid. What I had to learn was that taking a step in the right direction doesn’t mean long-jumping into the horizon. Since I didn’t understand that, I resorted to extremes; I either deleted everything or did nothing.
The problem with doing nothing was that the cons of social media always started catching up to me. In a world where your success is already largely predicated on how you compare to others, the unwavering presence of social media in our lives makes it easy to turn mundane realities into competitions. As our lives become increasingly digital, people feel increasingly obligated to convey who they are on social media. I think the younger generations in particular are more susceptible to feeling this pressure. Social media becomes an extension of who you are; places where you can collate your best moments to represent your identity. Who do you spend time with? What are your accomplishments? When was the last time you woke up early? Where was your last vacation? How often do you go to the gym? With 3.5 billion social media users posting their picture perfect moments, people are bound to compare themselves to others. Over time, you amass a multitude of insecurities, whether they be external, like the shape of your body or the details of your face, or internal, like your sense of fashion or your taste in music. According to Huffington Post, 60 percent of survey participants reported that social media had negatively impacted their self-esteem. If 60 percent of participants felt that social media had impacted their self-esteem, how many others have also been affected, but simply don’t know it? Which of your insecurities stem directly from what is portrayed in the media?
These questions had been circulating in my mind for a while. So it didn’t surprise me when I wished for his clear skin, her impeccable clothing, or their attractive energy. I figured it was just a negative of social media that I had to accept. Art Markman, a professor of psychology and marketing at the University of Texas at Austin, writes: “Your brain is a comparison engine. In every new situation, it automatically rifles through your memory of every other situation you’ve encountered in the past… Most of the time, you do this without you ever realizing it.” This information aggravated but also satisfied me. I’m a big believer that many things in life are relative, so naturally, I decided that if my brain was instinctively comparing me to others, then my multiplying insecurities were inescapable. It became all too easy to single out social media as the root of all my problems. Social media makes my brain compare myself to others, these comparisons make me insecure, these insecurities make me unhappy, this unhappiness is worsening my academic performance, and this worsening academic performance is diminishing my success… you get the picture.
Not pictured as clearly, however, was the effect of those insecurities on my identity. I like to visualize my identity as a tree. The roots represent the basis of who I am, such as my beliefs and my values. The trunk is composed of the core elements of my identity, such as my ethnicity and my sexuality. The branches symbolize how the basis and core elements of my identity manifest themselves in the real world, such as through my experiences and my memories. Finally, the pieces that stem from everything else are the leaves. They can vary from my sense of humour to my hobbies, constantly evolving. Like leaves, as the seasons and years pass, they undergo change and die. Some regrow and others don’t, but new ones always fill the empty spaces. There aren't two or three simple components to who we are; our identity consists of numerous intricate layers. As the pandemic progressed, I yearned to become more in touch with said layers. All the alone time encouraged me to do so, but it also increased the time I spent on social media. As I paid attention to what my peers and influencers were sharing online, those impressions began to shape who I wanted to become. The pressure of trying to find my own identity and portray who I was to the rest of the world started to feel much stronger; I grew fixated on not only who I was, but who I wanted to become so that the rest of the world could see me.
Personally, it wasn’t only the issue of feeling that I wasn’t enough; it was also the issue of wanting others to believe I was enough. It became frustrating when I felt I couldn’t properly portray my identity through a screen. The things I did and shared to everyone started to feel inorganic and performative. I wanted to become the kind of girl who woke up at six in the morning. I wanted to become the kind of girl who read the news. I wanted to become the kind of girl who no longer worried about what kind of girl she wanted to become. I began to change my life to reflect that, but it proved difficult to sustain the changes I implemented because I simply wasn’t motivated by the right reasons. I had tried to take drastic action based on who I hoped to be, not who I was. In order for a habit to stick, it has to align with who you are; your values, the roots of your tree. For me, this didn’t mean abandoning the kind of person I wanted to become. It meant understanding the kind of person I was, and how I could grow from that point. Setting goals, making habits, and reaching for the potential of who I knew I could be. You are entirely up to you, and that is simultaneously daunting as well as comforting. I decided I wanted to start waking up early because I loved the morning sun. I wanted to start reading the news because knowing what was going on in the world was important to me. I wanted to become confident because I wanted to feel inspired by others’ good qualities rather than feel inferior.
As easy as it is to find new reasons to be insecure, it is just as easy to find new reasons to be confident. Utilizing the Internet as a means of inspiration became my main strategy to forge a better relationship with social media. I began by following Asian-Canadian influencers that I knew would inspire me, and through that, I grew more comfortable in the trunk of my tree — more specifically, my ethnicity. My newfound confidence in who I was empowered me to grow more branches; I was able to experience more and to make the most out of those experiences. As a result of those branches, I was able to grow and regrow leaves. I dyed my hair. I started playing the piano again. I called my grandparents more often. Although my relationship with social media isn’t perfect, it has improved greatly since March. When I use it, I search for inspiration, and when I feel overwhelmed, I know to take a break.
Trying to understand who you are is a long process because we are always evolving. I especially like the way Ayishat Akanbi, a fashion stylist, writer, and cultural critic based in London, UK, put it: “[Your] fixation with your identity limits your identity.” We are all flawed creatures with innumerable parts to who we are. Attempting to pinpoint certain parts, grow certain parts, and get rid of certain parts can be exhausting. Trying to showcase your identity through your social media accounts can make the process even harder. It is important to remember that you are always growing. It can feel excruciatingly slow or horrifyingly fast, but it is an inevitable fact that you are always learning and changing. Like the leaves of a tree, you have so many unique pieces to you, and you aren’t defined by any single piece; rather, you are a whole person among a forest of many other whole people, all growing at very different rates, but growing nevertheless.