The Quest for the Self or Searching for Selfies?

The selfie continues its trajectory as a major form of communication in today’s social media universe. Named the Oxford Dictionary Online Word of the Year in 2013 the selfie has continued its meteoric rise ever since smartphones flipped the camera view. Yet what exactly is it communicating?


To fans of selfies they are something to post every day, a means of saying, ‘Hey, I’m here right now’ or ‘I’m doing this,’ which essentially translates as ‘I’m doing this,’ ‘this’ taking backseat to ‘I.’ Critics take a harsher view: the self-congratulating behavior is seen as obnoxious and egotistic. 

Conjuring a neatly bundled set of psychological drives for selfies is not easy. As Psychology Today points out, there is a sense of exploration and identification embedded in the process: you are constantly editing, refining and understanding yourself through the photographic journey. Viewers’ mirror neurons are activated through your lens, creating either a sense of kinship or disgust (both of which are expressed on blogs like ‘The Rich Kids of Instagram.’)

One of the more popular trends that has been the subject of debate is the ‘yoga selfie,’ which received its own NY Times column last year. Bendable women (and a few men) have amassed hundreds of thousands of followers for wearing little clothing while performing acrobatic positions. While the curvaceous lines are appreciated by oglers, some yogis see it in a different light: “If you don’t post a beautiful picture of your yoga, it didn’t happen.”

A particularly astute commenter mentioned the following after I posted criticism of the yoga selfie: looking at others in beautiful postures inspires me and gives me something to aspire to. Another mentioned that it had to do with checking form, that they could then see how their alignment looked after snapping the shot. I replied that if that was the case, why post the photo online? If it were all about ensuring that your lower back wasn’t overarching, why would the rest of the world need to know about it? I never heard back. 

Science writer Jennifer Ouellette investigated the psychological (among other) mechanisms for creating one’s sense of self in her book, Me, Myself, and Why: Searching for the Science of Self. One day a friend noticed her keychain featured the astrological symbol for Taurus. While she has no deep affiliation with astrology, the friend questioned her beliefs in the stars.

She then wrote about how we position objects in our home or office. If someone points a photo outward so that visitors approaching their desk can see it, the picture serves as an ‘identity claim.’ The photo becomes a testament to who the person is and how they want to be represented. This was not the purpose of Ouellette’s keychain.

If the photo is turned inward, not intended for public display, it is a ‘feeling regulator.’ As it turned out, Ouellette’s close friend died at the heights of the AIDS epidemic in the late ‘80s. It was a keepsake from their time together. Feeling regulators are reminders, personal keepsakes. Public display is not the point, even if it’s a byproduct.

This would explain my commenter’s lack of response. If the photo truly served as personal inspiration or alignment tutorial, there would be no reason to post it publicly. It could be saved on the phone, posted on their desktop, or printed and displayed prominently where they practice. Selfie as feeling regulator. 

That’s not what happens when selfies are thrown onto social media. They become identity claims: this is who I am. As the Psychology Today article points out, this process is fluid. Selfies shift as the human behind the camera changes, representing stages of development. Feeling regulation, however, will arise from the amount of comments and likes garnered. The pure satisfaction of posting a picture is ultimately a shallow endeavor—it no longer has any personal meaning and becomes all about public response.

In this sense, a 2013 study on happiness and meaning might offer some clues. While happiness is hard to define, researchers “found that happiness is associated with selfish ‘taking’ behavior and that having a sense of meaning in life is associated with selfless ‘giving’ behavior.” It’s the difference between feeling personally satisfied and believing yourself to be dedicated to a cause larger than yourself.

Researchers found that people devoted purely to the pursuit of happiness exhibit the same gene expression patterns as humans struggling with chronic adversity. Their bodies activate a pro-inflammatory response as if a bacterial threat was about to strike. Their constant state of heightened inflammation leads to sickness. Those with a sense of meaning showed no such symptoms.

This makes sense as we often pursue happiness as a means of avoiding loneliness or other threats to our existence. This constant avoidance of darker emotions will be represented in our bodies, as such pursuers are constantly on edge. A lack of happiness implies its opposite, whereas those on a quest for meaning are more likely to accept and endure adversities.

It’s the difference, in yoga parlance, between needing external verification of one’s body rather than moving onto the deeper self-reflective stages where physical representation is nowhere near as important as the emotions and thoughts dealt with during meditation.

I would guess this applies to all selfie taking, although repetition is key. I know few people that haven’t posted a selfie on occasion. It’s a modern extension of the Polaroid: immediate gratification capturing a place in time. If you’re chasing that on a daily basis, however, it’s going to be challenging to know where you ever really are. The quest for public display has trumped the quietude of personal satisfaction.

Photo: Vladimir Gjorgiev/shutterstock.com

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