By Rayla Rutkoskie

Recently, I felt the intuitive yank in my gut to ditch all social media. My body felt sick, glutted on everything outside of itself. So when I stumbled upon an article describing how our minds digest information like the body digests food, it made a lot of sense that I had become fat off the endless stream of information. In response, I deleted all the apps and mentally unplugged myself.

Then began the endless reach for my phone and the twinge of guilt when I remembered why I deleted the apps. Their absence felt like I’d tried to sneak a cigarette, only to be caught red-handed. I wanted to understand why I was checking my phone every couple minutes. Something in me was invested enough to keep searching my feed. I just didn’t know what I was searching for. So I switched gears.

Every time I checked my phone, I asked myself, “Why are you checking it now?” and was met with strong inner resistance. I had to drag myself out of my phone and back into my body metaphorically kicking and screaming before I’d answer: “I’m lonely.” “I’m sad.” “I want love.” “I’m afraid.”

I wanted to find myself not guilty. I wanted to be fine. But my answers proved there was something deeper going on.

I took stock like this for a few weeks and noticed that my answers boiled down to two reasons for using social media: I was either running away from something or trying to fill a hole in my life. Both stemmed from not wanting to deal with something uncomfortable or painful.

I also noticed that the problem extended beyond social media. When I didn’t have social media apps, I found myself bingeing on Netflix instead.

I think using any activity to escape is the symptom of a very real and overlooked problem in how our culture handles feelings. Our culture has instilled in us the nasty habit of labeling feelings as good or bad. When a feeling is undesirable, we attempt to deny its existence. And when it still arises, we panic and get sad or angry because we’re not “normal.”

For men, normalcy is to show no emotion, and for women it is to never express sadness or anger. If we’re not normal, we’re not accepted, and if we’re not accepted, the ego screams that we’re in danger. So we try desperately to fit the mold, even at the cost of sacrificing our feelings.

I was using Netflix to numb myself out and social media to build up my persona. When something uncomfortable happened, I had the option of bailing anytime on the unacceptable parts of myself by reaching for my phone. It’s like getting partnered in class with the weird kid no one wants to talk to, only with ourselves there is no teacher saying that we need to play nicely together. I can be mean to or ignore that weird kid all I want.

But that weird kid? She’s all the things about myself that have been rejected, first by others and then by myself. She might be the creative part of me I’ve lost over the years because one too many people didn’t like my art. She might even be the true kindness someone cynical mistook for fakeness, so I locked her away.

It’s this toxic setup on how and which feelings should be felt that makes me reach for the escape hatch provided by social media. It gives me the choice of facing my own flawed reflection or creating a perfect persona that is more tangible and easily controlled at the click of a button.

The truth is that we want to feel everything but think there is no room in the world to feel it all without coming off as, typically, a crazy woman or a weak man. We end up treating emotion like a crime when the real crime is in defining ourselves as alien and editing who we are to suit the status quo.

Things like social media and Netflix can be the best camouflage for all the self loathing that stems from not knowing what to do in the face of all these contradictory messages. Other addictions and coping mechanisms have more noticeable and unacceptable side effects than staring at a screen and missing life go by.

The novelist Alice Walker said, “You think you can avoid pain, but actually you can’t. If you do, you just get sicker, or you feel more pain. But if you can speak it, if you can write it, if you can paint it, it is very healing.” I used to think nothing was worse than feeling pain, but I was wrong. Not feeling pain is so much worse, because it sits there buried in my body, and if anyone or anything gets near it, it hurts. But I can’t understand or heal what I’ve willfully ignored.

So I can practice feeling everything, noticing each emotion but not labeling it as good or bad. It’s just there, and it has a reason to be. If I remember that the reason is always valid and worth uncovering, I can see the purpose of healing but also understand and appreciate the depth of who I am.

I’m still using social media and Netflix to avoid myself sometimes, and I’m betting that it will continue because it’s a habit formed over the years. But I’m being patient and compassionate with the unlearning process. If I’m not, I’ll fall back into recreating myself on a digital plane instead of living in my own skin.

Before cultural expectations weighed heavily on my shoulders, I used to find places in the real world to be completely myself and give myself all the space I needed. Instead of numbing my feelings or creating a persona to feed me validation, I’d make friends with myself and others. Stepping back into this practice is helping me stop searching outside myself for answers. Instead, I can look inside and receive the real thing that the validation became a stand-in for: love.

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