Thursday, January 5, 2017

AUTHENTICITY – the real me

Recently I started feeling a little glum about my aging blah hair. I thought I would just change it up a little. Maybe colour it and trim a little. But I was very broke and vain and don't like to admit I need help and I'd coloured my hair in the past and it was okay, so what was the big deal? So I found a box of colour I thought I could trust (not the cheapest and not the most expensive, but a brand I'd trusted in the past) and went to work. 

Perhaps I should have talked to my husband about this first. Because the whole choosing to colour issue was largely due to a need to talk about my self-image and have a real person help me come to terms with what I was struggling with and come up with a plan that would really help. But no, straight to the store for a box of instant pick me up. After all, why talk to a real person or even the professionals about your hair? It would be too expensive. I've got this.

It was okay. Kind of.  But it was really dark - darker than I wanted. Not ugly, thankfully, but just not quite what I had envisioned. Did I stop at that point and talk to my husband to see what he thought? Not really. Do I trust him? Absolutely. So why didn't I? Vanity. So I decided what would fix it would be a few highlights - just a few subtle, tasteful highlights. And I've done them before only a few years ago. What could go wrong? Off to the store again. But remember there's a strict budget at play. So I found a sachet of highlighting powder and opted to buy a small bottle of peroxide developer. I'm not a hairdresser. I have no professional training. But I pay attention and I'm a smart person so I should be able to work this out. I can go outside the box this time because I don't need to spend a lot for too much product anyway. There are two options - a 20 volume and a 30 volume solution. I go with the 20 thinking it will be less harsh and work just fine. I go home congratulating myself on finding an inexpensive solution to the darker than desirable hair and mix up the product. It makes quite a bit more than I realised. I probably should have only done half of it, but it's too late now. I'll just go easy and throw out what I don't use. It was still less than half the cost of the cheapest box kit. 

So the careful parting and sectioning of the hair begins. It's harder than I remember. It takes a long time too. And I know I need to work quickly or some of the hair will be really bleached by the time I get done with the last strands. I have a dumb idea. Isn't ombré a thing? It might look really good. I've still got lots of length to work with and I can always cut off whatever I think I need to. So I go for it. I've got curly hair. It's really forgiving. It'll be fine. (Vanity again) At no point in this process do I remember that my hair pulls red naturally and that there have been serious wobbles in the past. I just boldly go where I’ve gone before.

Not fine. So not fine. Turns out the 20 volume is milder but that also means that it doesn't strip the colour to a true blond the way the 30 probably would have. I get this really distinctive ginger colour happening. And because of the whole ombré thing it's really rather bad. I don't know what to do. So I panic. And trim. And call my husband to go out to a local chemist and find me a solution to make it go away. So my poor husband has to wander aisles of hair product looking for something that will work while seeking guidance via the phone because I'm too embarrassed to leave the house. He ends up with a bottle of toning shampoo and another box of colour as a last resort. The shampoo helps slightly but not quite enough. So the decision is made to cut about four inches at this point. And my husband has to lend a shaking hand to make sure it's even at that back. No one dies, and it becomes manageable. And the second box of colour sits on the shelf waiting until it is needed because I suspect if I colour it again at this point it might all fall out just to round out the learning experience. 

What exactly happened here? I started down an inauthentic path to validate myself. I'm aging. I'm getting grayer. I haven't been to a hairdresser in years. Instead of talking to real people about my real insecurity, I tried to fix it all myself by seeking a way to disguise my reality. And I started thinking about how easy it is to do that in every aspect of our lives. We primp, we pose, we purchase. And most of it is to simply disguise our reality. We want to seem like we know what we're doing, that we belong here with all the beautiful, talented, smart, funny, athletic, amazing people. And we do belong, but as ourselves and not in an edited or augmented version.

So I've been thinking about authenticity lately. We tweet; we Instagram; we hashtag; we blog; we represent ourselves as favourably as we can to be followed/liked/friended. Our world has created selfie addicts and individuals that cannot stop checking their phone to see if someone has reacted to their latest post. Social media presence has replaced the gold star sticker of our first years at school. This isn’t new. There are passages of the New Testament that detail how some of the Jewish leaders believed the Saviour but couldn’t bring themselves to openly follow Him for fear of losing their status within the circles of power and influence. Our world runs on validation and approval. We’re wired to seek respect and approval. But we have a new stage and its being carefully designed to lure. 

Mauricio Delgado is an associate professor of psychology at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He poses the following: 
“The same brain areas [that are activated for food and water] are activated for social stimuli. This can be a smile, someone telling you you’re doing a great job or you’re trustworthy, or you’re a nice person, or even merely cooperating with somebody. All of these social ‘reinforcers’ are abstract but show similar activity in the reward centers of the brain. This suggests that, perhaps, if you’re getting positive feedback in social media—‘likes’ and shares and retweets—it’s a positive ‘reinforcer’ of using social media, and one that allows you to, a.) get the positive effects of it, and, b.) return to it seeking out more social reinforcement… Often, if you have the earliest predictor of a reward—a sign of a social media alert, like your phone buzzing—you get a rush of dopamine from that condition stimulus. That might trigger you to go check out the outcome, to see what it is. That type of reinforcement is something that you now seek out. 
Delgado, M.R. & Dilmore, J.G. (2008) Social and emotional influences on decision-making and the brain. Minn. J.L. Sci & Tech., 9 (2): 899-912.

Marketers are actually increasingly using this strategy to get us to buy their product or service. They are using our brain's natural inclinations to motivate us to purchase and promote simultaneously. And the pattern is intentionally addictive to work effectively to sell product. Here's a pretty good article written by a psychology PhD named Susan Weinshenk who teaches the psychology behind these ideas for a living and advises high profile corporations in the art of manipulating behaviour. She explains our natural addiction to the social media cycle really well. 

I think the saddest thing is recognising this behaviour in me. It happens when I'm bored or disinterested in what's going on around me, and I find myself checking my phone. Several weeks ago I forced myself on my morning commute to not check my phone for the whole trip and simply notice my environment. It was pretty sobering to realise how difficult it actually was. It took more effort and physical engagement. It's so much easier to forego that in favour of the 'quick hit' a Facebook scroll can give us. Because my husband will often text as we head our separate ways in the morning I’m pretty used to waiting for that text. Not responding to the quiet little 'ding' was much harder than I'd like, but I was able to check when I got to my destination minutes later and no feelings were damaged in the process. 

The compulsive nature of this interaction is bad enough, but what has been bothering me lately is the misleading and misrepresentation that we all engage in quite naturally in the process. We say things on social media that we would never say face to face to someone we care about. We voice opinions strongly online that we wouldn't be likely to stand on a crowded street corner yelling at those who don't agree. We engage in online tantrums and heckling that are just mean-spirited. We pretend to be something we're not because the artificial reinforcement of our ideas has become more important than real meaningful relationships. There are few real consequences for our online behaviour in most cases. When you can number your 'friends/followers' in the thousands, what difference does it make it one or two 'unfriend' you? Conversely, we take great satisfaction in unfriending or unfollowing someone that posts something we don't like or agree with. This behaviour isn't new. People have stopped talking to other people ever since time began, and now we get to do it with a powerful sense of righteous indignation and justification. 

There is an egotism and self-absorption to all of this. We have allowed ourselves to believe that what we think or say is important to the world at large. There are 7 billion people on this planet. How many of them will you really meet in your life? How many of them will you really know personally? If one of those seven billion who we're never likely to meet finds our online presence, is it an accurate representation? Or did we go through a whole bunch of possibilities before selecting the most flattering shot for our profile pic even if it's a couple of years old and almost doesn’t look like us? And perhaps sometimes we share links to really amazing articles we may or may not have read entirely, but do we humbly acknowledge that we don't have the eloquence ourselves, or just post and wait for the digital pat on the back for finding it and passing it along?

I'm not entirely sure anyone fully understands how the power of social media works yet. It seems to be a work in progress even now. While it has a great deal of marketing power, I'm not convinced it’s very good at changing public policy or even the world. So many of us think we’re changing the world by liking or sharing or daring our ‘friends’ to copy and paste this statement into their status. We won’t cure cancer, eliminate homelessness, house refugees, defeat domestic violence, end abortions or achieve world peace via social media no matter how much we want to believe it. These are human problems and must be solved by humans. And until our social presence is more honestly human, nothing will change substantially. The truth is that social media is now largely 21st century junk mail and opinion vomit. What I suspect was meant to be an arena to connect and share philosophies, ideas and experiences in a safe, non-judgemental way has become something very different. Too often what we choose to share is intended to polarise and distance instead of educate and inform in a respectful manner. We’re looking for a reaction and the stronger the better because that creates more buzz. But it’s not good buzz. It’s contentious and often misinformed and doesn’t foster understanding. Often we post so others can see how amazing our life is. We post to prove we’re right or smarter than someone else. We post to be seen. We post to belong in an artificial world. And our artificial world sifts it all and then feeds us back information it thinks we should see so it can manipulate us even further. Some days I resent the intrusion and the waste it is gradually becoming. It’s become a like a cluttered digital bulletin board that someone really needs to clean up.

Personally I find that social media is becoming a lot of work to keep authentic in my life. My feeds are being taken over by the marketing. It takes so long to unfollow and hide all the things that I don't care about that I don't even post that often anymore. Lately I tend to just post pictures of things/places and other people, but rarely pictures of me. The fear of someone taking offence (if I post without thinking) is always there, which means I don’t like voicing any opinions. So I'm making some social media rules for myself this year. 
#1 - Primum non nocere - 'first do no harm' - I'm going to try harder not to post or comment until I have thought about how anyone reading it might react. And if I decide to like or share someone else's post, it's because I would be happy to do so in person with someone I've never met who might feel very differently.
#2 - Only share things I have made an effort to authenticate - if I don't know where it comes from, I need to find out and make sure it's actually true. I need to exercise due diligence in my fact-checking. 
#3 - No fishing - this is going to be hard, but I suspect it's important. We like to have others acknowledge our joy/pain/success/discomfort. We really like that pat on the head or that gold star. If I share a photo of food, it will only be because it was delicious. I won't complain about service I received or didn't receive. If I share a success, it will be accompanied by a qualifier giving credit where it is due - I NEVER succeed by myself. There are always others that helped it happen.

And that's about it for now, I think. Time to grow up and accept who I really am and avoid misrepresentation. The posts could very well thin out this year because of it, but I'm okay with that. I need to stop checking social media so I can check into real life and work on my authenticity. Because at this stage in my life, I think it's time to be more honest with myself and others. I am nearly 50 years old. I am often tired. I could be in better shape but lack the time and motivation to really commit to that right now. I eat stupid things sometimes because they make me feel better. I read a lot of novels because they help me escape from reality and words are like a drug when they fit together well. I probably believe I’m smarter than I actually am. I often hide from the outside world because it’s so much work to pretend I am an adult who knows what they’re doing. I don’t need to filter or augment that reality to belong. None of us do. We belong because we are here. We belong because we are flawed. We belong because this is our life and we're all living it together. But yeah, it's time to get real. No more pretending. It just makes everyone dissatisfied and unhappy.