With America on lockdown, many of us are spending more time with our phones and social media feeds than is normal or healthy. This piece, originally published in 2017, has some advice on how to curb the need for validation, information and entertainment
Have you ever noticed that your greatest need can produce your greatest vulnerability?
It seems like a thin line exists between seeking the fulfillment of a genuine need and allowing it to become an unhealthy obsession. The introduction of social media into this danger zone only makes it more difficult. For instance, how do we know when we’re looking for affirmation (a genuine need) or validation (unhealthy obsession)?
Personally, I struggle with this when it comes to social media and public speaking. After reading Gary Chapman’s best-selling book, The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love that Lasts, I discovered my love language is words of affirmation.
I regularly look for opportunities to get feedback or affirmation of my work. It’s the way I receive love. I’m a pastor, so as I prepare for a sermon, I will put together a group of friends to help me figure out what still needs tweaking and what stands strong within my talk. I put hours into a blog post or article, hoping to hear from people people who gained new perspective or experienced personal change through my words.
But my need for affirmation can turn—and in the past has turned—into an unhealthy search for validation. In seeking to get my need met, at times, I have given people far too much power to validate or invalidate me.
Like many other people, I will check to see if anyone liked that status or commented on that picture far too frequently. I will refresh and refresh, wondering: “Has anyone shared my blog post yet?” “Did I get more subscribers this week?” “Is my traffic up today?” “Please let this go viral.”
On Sunday afternoon, I’ll wonder: “How was that sermon? Did anyone respond? Did anyone share my clever statements on Facebook or Twitter?”
As I express my gifts in very public settings, I’m putting myself in the midst of this battle on a weekly, if not daily, basis. While I want to be affirmed for doing a good job, I can very easily allow my identity to be on the line for validation in the process. While you may not be a public speaker or pastor, you’re out there in this struggle with me in every post, tweet, selfie and snap you share.
This struggle to navigate the line between affirmation and validation is a scrap many of us know all too well. While I believe my struggle is not unique, I think many of us are losing our battle with the dark side of modern technology and experiencing tremendous anxiety as a result.
We’re living in amazing times. Many of us benefit from using social media. We get to connect with people we wouldn’t otherwise. We learn and get exposed to more of our world than the generations before us.
However, the dark side of social media is that likes, comments, shares, retweets, favorites, followers, friends and subscribers become a way to measure our value, rather than our profile’s performance. These “vanity metrics” end up deciding the value of not only our work, but of who we are.
I got tired of feeling like social media owned me. I got fed up with giving other people (some I’ve never met) the power to decide my value as a person.
This led me to take action:
Fast from website stats and social media.
Turning off your notifications or going on a fast from social media could a wise and healthy choice. Hitting the reset button on your use of good tools that have become bad news might be wise—painful, yet wise. Without thoughtfully engaging these tools, we become mastered by them rather than being master of them.
I recently deleted my Google Analytics and MailChimp apps from my iPhone and left them off for several weeks. I now have to work harder to check my stats. I took a 24-hour social media fast last weekend because I saw some unhealthy habits developing. Without access to the numbers, I found more joy in the actual work.
In the recent #MillennialMusical, created by Lin-Manuel Miranda and The Rock, one character gave up social media and found a fresh perspective. But when a good thing has become a bad thing—or even worse an idol—fasting can break the destructive pattern.
While fasting can break the pattern, most of us aren’t going offline forever, so we have to learn how to be healthy and engaged online.
Identify good sources of affirmation.
We must learn how to discern good and bad sources of affirmation. I’ve found that the difference is often found in exploring the source of affirmation. Asking questions helps clarify things here. How close are we to the sources we’re seeking? How much trust and history have we established with these people?
When I realize I’m looking for strangers to let me know if I’m OK, something is off. When the response of people we don’t know on our phone matters more than the people we are physically with, we need change.
Who are the people who matter most to us? We must create regular opportunities for affirmation from them. Remind them of your need for encouragement. When we’re tempted to go look elsewhere, we must remind ourselves of what the people who matter most think about you.
Recognize that no amount of likes or comments or retweets will ever be enough if that decides your value.
Growing up, The Sandlot and Cool Runnings were two of my favorite movies.
For the uninitiated, Cool Runnings is inspired by the true story of the first Jamaican bobsled team to compete in the Olympics during the 1988 Games in Calgary, Alberta. This fictionalized version is comical and emotional.
While there are countless lines I could quote from the movie, I think about one scene often. The scene is a conversation with the captain of the team, Derice Bannock and the team’s coach, Irv Blitzer.
In the scene, Darice asks Irv why he cheated when he was a bobsledder on the American team, costing himself a gold medal. Irv’s response rings in my ears today, “If you’re not enough without it, you’ll never be enough with it.”
Those words are so powerful. They challenge me. Whenever I think about this scene, I write my own sentence, “If I’m not enough without ________, I’ll never be enough with ________.” How would you complete those sentences? What do you place the most value in?
It’s one thing for social media to be a place where we get affirmed, that’s a normal human need. But when it becomes a place where we look for validation, I’m not sure we’ll ever get enough.
If we’re not enough without another like, retweet, comment or share, then we’re always going to be looking for “just a little more” at every stage of your life. 50 won’t be enough, I’ll want 100. 1000 won’t be enough, I’ll want 2000. We’ll never arrive at enough followers, friends or subscribers. “More” is a mirage; from far away, we think our thirst will be satisfied. But when we get close, our only option is to drink sand.
I believe that “Am I enough?” may be the most important question we ask ourselves today. If we’re enough without “it,” then we can actually achieve “it” and thrive. We can receive the things we seek without them destroying us.