“Photographs do not explain, they acknowledge.” –Susan Sontag
Last month, the Oxford Dictionary made the word “selfie” not only an official word, but their word of the year for 2013. Defining selfie as “a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website” the OD made explicit what has implicitly grown to be the norm of our world; a world of smartphones, self pics and social media.
Many psychotherapists and social workers have and will continue to decry this as another sign the the “narcissism” of our age. Selfies have become synonymous with the millenials, the dumbing down of the populace by the internet, and sometimes even stretching to how Google is making us stupid. My chosen profession has historically played fast and loose with calling people and cultures narcissistic. Karen Horney coined the term “the neurotic personality of our time” in the 1930s, initially in part as a critique to the Freudian critique of Victorian modesty. Kohut’s groundbreaking work on “tragic man,” and the healthy strands of narcissism in human life was co-opted within years by Lasch (1979) to describe the then-current “culture of narcissism.” In short, even though narcissism has been a part of human being at least since Narcissus gazed into the water in Greco-Roman times, we continue to see it as perennially on the uprise.
This dovetails with each generation’s lament that the subsequent one has become more self-absorbed. And yet, as Sontag points out, by making photography everyday, “everybody is a celebrity.” Yep, that’s what we hate about the millennials, right? They think everything is an accomplishment, their every act destined for greatness. But as Sontag goes on to say, making everybody a celebrity is also making another interesting affirmation: “no person is more interesting than any other person.”
Why do many of us (therapists in particular) have a problem then with selfies? Why do we see them as a “symptom” of the narcissism of the age? Our job is to find the interesting in anyone, after all. We understand boredom as a countertransference response in many cases, our attempt to defend against some projection of the patient’s. So why the hating on selfies?
I think Lewis Aron hits on the answer, or at least part of it, in his paper “The Patient’s Experience of the Analyst’s Subjectivity.” In it he states the following:
I believe that people who are drawn to analysis as a profession have particularly strong conflicts regarding their desire to be known by another; that is, they have conflicts concerning intimacy. In more traditional terms, these are narcissistic conflicts over voyeurism and exhibitionism. Why else would anyone choose a profession in which one spends one’s life listening and looking into the lives of others while one remains relatively silent and hidden?
(Aron, A Meeting of Minds, 1996, p. 88)
In other words, I believe that many of my colleagues have such disdain for selfies because they secretly yearn to take and post them. If you shuddered with revulsion just now, check yourself. I certainly resemble that remark at times: I struggled long with whether to post my own selfie here. What might my analytically-minded colleagues think? My patients, students, supervisees? I concluded that the answers will vary, but in general the truth that I’m a human being is already out there.
Therapists like to give themselves airs, including an air of privacy in many instances. We get hung up on issues of self-disclosure, when what the patient is often really looking for is a revelation that we have a subjectivity rather than disclosure of personal facts. And as Aron points out, our patients often pick up on our feelings of resistance or discomfort, and tow the line. One big problem with this though is that we don’t know what they aren’t telling us about because they didn’t tell us. In the 60s and 70s there were very few LGBT issues voiced in therapy, and the naive conclusion was that this was because LGBT people and experiences were a minority, in society in general and one’s practice in specific. Of course, nobody was asking patient’s if they were LGBT, and by not asking communicating their discomfort.
What has this got to do with selfies? Well for one thing, I think that therapists are often similarly dismissive of technology, and convey this by not asking about it in general. Over and over I hear the same thing when I present on video games–”none of my patients talk about them.” When I suggest that they begin asking about them, many therapists have come back to me describing something akin to a dam bursting in the conversation of therapy. But since we can’t prove a null hypothesis, let me offer another approach to selfies.
All photographs, selfie or otherwise, do not explain anything. For example:
People who take a selfie are not explaining themselves, they are acknowledging that they are worth being visible. Unless you have never experienced any form of oppression this should be self-evident, but in case you grew up absolutely mirrored by a world who thought you were the right size, shape, color, gender, orientation and class I’ll explain: Many of our patients have at least a sneaking suspicion that they are not people. They look around the world and see others with the power and prestige and they compare that to the sense of emptiness and invisibility they feel. Other people can go to parties, get married, work in the sciences, have children, buy houses, etc. But they don’t see people like themselves prevailing in these areas. As far as they knew, they were the only biracial kid in elementary school, adoptee in middle school, bisexual in high school, trans person in college, rape survivor at their workplace.
So if they feel that they’re worth a selfie, I join with them in celebrating themselves.
As their therapist I’d even have some questions:
- What were you thinking and feeling that day you took this?
- What do you hope this says about you?
- What do you hope this hides about you?
- Who have you shared this with?
- What was their response?
- What might this selfie tell us about who you are?
- What might this selfie tell us about who you wish to be?
- Where does that spark of belief that you are worth seeing reside?
In addition to exploring, patients may find it a useful intervention to keep links to certain selfies which evoke certain self-concept and affect states. That way, if they need a shift in perspective or affect regulation they can access immediately a powerful visual reminder which says “This is possible for you.”
Human beings choose to represent themselves in a variety of ways, consciously and unconsciously. They can be whimsical, professional, casual, friendly, provocative, erotic, aggressive, acerbic, delightful. Are they projections of our idealized self? Absolutely. Are they revelatory of our actual self? Probably. They explain nothing, acknowledge the person who takes them, and celebrate a great deal. If there is a way you can communicate a willingness see your patient’s selfies you might be surprised at what opens up in the therapy for you both.
In other posts I have written about Huizinga’s concept of play. Rather than as seeing selfies as the latest sign that we are going to hell in a narcissistic handbasket, what if we looked at the selfie as a form of play? Selfies invite us in to the play element in the other’s life, they are not “real” life but free and unbounded. They allow each of us to transcend the ordinary for a moment in time, to celebrate the self, and share with a larger community as a form of infinite game.
It may beyond any of us to live up to the ideal that no one is less interesting than anyone else in our everyday, but seen in this light the selfie is a renunciation of the cynicism I sometimes see by the mental health professionals I meet. We sometimes seem to privilege despair as somehow more meaningful and true than joy and celebration, but aren’t both essential parts of the human condition? So if you are a psychotherapist or psychoeducator, heed my words: The Depth Police aren’t going to come and take your license away, so go out and snap a selfie while everyone is looking.