At what point does “authenticity” jeopardize our mental health?

As a kid, I developed a lot of film. Well, actually, the one-hour photo counter at my local grocery store developed a lot of film.

I can still remember the rush I felt when I received that Kodak envelope. I’d quickly flip through to see if any photos were overexposed or corrupted. Then, I’d look more closely to determine which photos would make it into albums and frames, and which ones I’d give away a copy of (I always got doubles). Most of the photos ended up stuffed in journals, next to entries detailing the moments they captured, or in books, alongside stories or quotes they complemented.

You might think that I must be a prime consumer of Instagram, given my love of photos and the sentimental meaning I attached to them in my childhood. But I didn’t join immediately. In fact, I joined Instagram years after it became popular—and I checked it and posted so inconsistently I often forgot I even had the account. Since then, I’ve begun to post a little more regularly, but really that looks like roughly every two to three weeks, sometimes even less (though I do now scroll through my feed more often).

I’ve sometimes felt insecure about my inconsistent Instagram presence, like I’m a taker more than I’m a giver. I follow many accounts (both of individuals and brands) that enrich my life daily with helpful makeup and fashion tips, recipes, inspirational stories, funny memes, and beautiful images. I’ll admit I’ve sometimes felt a pressure—perceived and real—to step up my posting game to add to the community.

But I’ve tried and failed. I’m still trying, I think. I’ve determined the issue is partly a product of my tendency to be a private person. But the other part is my discomfort with the way the platform has influenced how we as a culture understand and tell our stories.

Is online authenticity good for us?

Most of us are familiar with the “highlight reel” problem engendered by Instagram and Facebook. In response, our culture has pushed for greater honesty and authenticity on social media. Show us your messy house. Tell us about a personal struggle you’re overcoming. Be authentic about the good times and the not-so-good times of your life. This authenticity about our struggles has been accompanied by an encouragement that we offer compassion and empathy in response to such brave posts.

However, this push and acceptance of authenticity online has created another subtle change in our own experience of our life stories. As we’ve become more comfortable with sharing on social media, the line between one’s personal story and a story for sharing with the masses has been blurred. Not only does that affect how we make memories, it isn’t always good for our mental health.

A few months ago, I witnessed a tragic incident in one of the many Facebook groups I’m in. A woman came onto the group discussion board to ask for support for a very difficult parenting situation she was facing. This young mother was very obviously looking for connection and some sort of validation that she was not alone. The pain in her post was raw and vivid. The vast majority of the group members offered kind words of affirmation and a reassurance of their good thoughts and prayers for her.

Some group members, however, started offering unsolicited advice, or worse, critiqued how she was emotionally handling her situation. The young mother started to get defensive, and a few negative posts later, had announced she’d be leaving the group.

As Brené Brown, acclaimed author and researcher, has written: “If you share your shame story with the wrong person, he or she can easily become one more piece of flying debris in your already dangerous shame storm.” Regrettably, it appeared this young mother was indeed hit by more flying debris during her own shame storm.

Telling our stories to those who matter first

Brown says connection is the key to getting out of shame. Connection is found in empathy. Empathy looks like friends or family who, upon hearing our “shame story,” say things like, “Oh, I’ve totally been there,” or “Gosh, that’s hard—I can understand why you’re struggling.” These reactions give us “a ladder out of the shame hole,” says Brown, because they show us that the listener is feeling or has felt the emotion we’re feeling—meaning, we are, in fact, not alone.

As Brown points out, there will always be people who will not be able to empathize in response to our shame. These individuals try to brush aside our pain as not that bad, critique our response to our pain, or try to one-up it. However, over time in our relationships we learn which friends’ or family members’ reactions help us to feel less alone and less ashamed. We protect ourselves from dangerous reactions by turning in times of need to the proper sources of emotional support.

Truthfully, this sort of unconditional empathy is much more difficult to find online. In online forums like Facebook and Instagram, we’re less able to weed out helpful reactions from unhelpful reactions. When we choose to share our stories online, we are dangerously vulnerable to the flying debris Brown says could make our shame storm worse. Moreover, when we share online before or at the same time that we share with our friends and family, we risk betraying the trust we’ve spent years building in those relationships.

Practicing authenticity from a place of strength

As an editor who often works with people to package their stories for public consumption, I’ve learned from others in the field that it’s important for personal stories to be shared from a scar, not a wound. A story shared from a wound is raw—it can easily begin to hurt again or hurt more deeply if a reader offers a response that is critical or lacks empathy. A story shared from a scar is still deeply personal, but not as sensitive or weak in the face of critical responses.

Which brings me back to my love of photos and stories, and the conflicted feelings I’ve had about Instagram and sharing our stories on social media.

During the past few years, as authenticity on social media has gained momentum, I’ve overcome a number of life events that have been very difficult for me, including health challenges, the death of a beloved grandmother, and other significant events. I’ve documented many of the struggles and the lessons learned in journals and other private writings. Often, these writings have been accompanied by, you guessed it, pictures—of my sickly complexion before my diagnosis and during my sickness, of my family with our deceased loved one, or of a striking sunset I watched while contemplating life’s ups and downs.

Because I’ve been actively healing wounds (literally and figuratively) these past few years, writing has helped me to process these moments, something psychology research says is an important part of resilience. Similarly, reaching out privately to trusted friends and family has helped me walk through moments when I’ve felt shame or alone in my struggles. Those connections helped me grow stronger and heal effectively. But sharing these revelations online as they were happening could have inhibited growth, healing, and resilience.

All this considered, don’t mistake me as someone who thinks we should shut down Facebook groups and cease attempts at cultivating authenticity and community on social media: On the contrary, I’m actually in support of building more authentic and empathetic connection online. But I think we need to understand what healthy authenticity is and isn’t—and the role sharing online can play in our own wellbeing.

So I’ll keep trying to cultivate my Instagram presence. But I’m also going to keep printing off photos to stuff in journals and books, and I will continue to share my stories with my friends or family before I share them online. After all, authenticity is a worthy thing to cultivate on social media, but it need not and should not begin there.