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“I spent ages taking that picture. I was really careful with my make-up and hair. I must have taken twenty or thirty pictures before I found the one I was happy with. Then I experimented with effects and filters for a while until it was perfect. I uploaded it to the internet and only got five ‘likes’ and one of them was from my mum so it doesn’t count. Now I feel rubbish about myself, I’m so ugly.”

The explosion in popularity of social media such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram has certainly made it easier to stay connected to others.

Those of us with smartphones are able to reach out to countless people over the internet at the swipe of a finger. Such technological progress is undoubtedly impressive, but it brings with it old problems in new guises.

The statement at the start of this article, whilst fictitious, is likely to have struck a chord with many people out there. A risk of social media apps is that the users begin to feel validated by the number of ‘hits’, ‘views’ or ‘likes’ that their post gets. Their sense of self-worth comes to rely upon other people reading, watching or liking the things that they post. This might not be a problem if the person has a network of friends and family who regularly provide support and encouragement by ‘liking’ or commenting on every post.

However, when we rely on other people to validate our own self-image and self-esteem, we are opening ourselves up to potential problems. This is known as an external locus of evaluation, where the individual is only able to feel positive about themselves if others are responding to them positively. As social creatures, it is perfectly natural to seek approval from others around us. After all, it feels good to get a pat on the back or a “well done” from someone else. The problem arises if we are only able to feel good about ourselves when we are praised by others.

An internal locus of evaluation is when we are able to feel good about ourselves without the need for external supports (i.e. the praise or approval of others). Whilst it is unlikely that our self-image will rely entirely on an internal locus of evaluation, it is worthwhile to foster the habit of self-praise and try to seek less validation from others.

The person at the start of this article could attempt this by simply feeling happy with her picture and pleased with how she looked in it. Expecting a certain number of ‘likes’ only serves to set an artificial goal which might, depending on circumstance, be entirely unrealistic. A selfie posted online in the middle of the night is undoubtedly going to get far less ‘likes’ than one posted in the middle of the day. A selfie that gets thirty likes is not of any more value than a selfie than a selfie that gets two likes.

Taking pride in one’s own appearance and achievements is not necessarily a bad thing. Vanity becomes harmful when our preoccupation with how others view us comes to dominate our own sense of self-worth.

Taigh Sàmhchair: professional counselling and psychotherapy
Hereward Proops MBACP, registered member of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy
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