This Isn’t Therapy

This Isn't Therapy... it’s a timely conversation about being chronically online. In segment one, Jake and Simon talk about Brené Brown’s recent splash back into social media (welcome back BB!) and read an excerpt from her tear-jerking blog post where she talks about taking time away from the internet. In segment two, Jake and Simon chat about the pros and cons of being constantly online and what Jake is #noticing in the therapy room.

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Hello, hi! Follow us on Instagram: @notatherapypodcast⁣
Jake Ernst: @mswjake
Simon Paluck: @directedbysimon
Episode mixed by Jordan Paluck

Creators & Guests

Jake Ernst
Simon Paluck

What is This Isn’t Therapy?

This Isn’t Therapy... it's a podcast about it!
Therapy themes are everywhere you look— they’re in your relationships, in the culture, and yes, inside of you, Mary! Each week, Jake Ernst and Simon Paluck peel back the therapy curtain to discuss the very things people are talking to their therapists about. Anxiety. Boundaries. People Pleasing. Their narcissistic mother. No topic is off limits!

New episodes released every Thursday.

The hosts:
The pod:

For the past few years, I’ve been thinking and writing and talking about how technology, for better or worse, is changing how we connect.

Over the last six months, I deliberately withdrew from social media and content creation. As the platforms became increasingly more addictive, I noticed myself slowly becoming a completely different person. Aside from a few Facebook and Instagram posts, I’ve been offline away from social media and away from the scroll. This isn’t an exaggeration— being away from social media genuinely changed my life.

In my role as a therapist with young people, parents, and families, I’ve observed the transformative impact of technology on behaviour and relationships. My client work has forced me to see my own behaviour and my own relationships through a different lens too. Through them, I started to see my own patterns I had become numb to replicating. I was desperate to find the levers I could pull that would make me feel better so I wrote down a list of all the things that were making me stressed. Then I sorted this list into “Things I Can Control” and “Things I Cannot Control”. On the list of things I could control, it became clear that one of the primary stressors was my phone.

Now I knew the source of my stress. Next, I wanted to reflect on what parts of my phone were causing unnecessary stress. From there, I sorted the list into one last category : “Stressful And Worth It” and “Stressful And Not Worth It.” Once again, it became clear what the main stressor was: My social media use.

If you know me, you’ll know that I’m a thoughtful and creative person. Back in 2016 when I started writing online, I began using blogging sites and social media to share my creative work. There weren’t a lot of therapists on social media at the time writing about therapy or sharing psychological insights. By then, the internet was already saturated with blogs and think pieces, but there wasn’t a lot of short-form content that helped people better understand themselves or their situation. I started writing online to make the content I was seeing easier to understand with less jargon. Boy, have things changed since then…

The decision to step away
Throughout the past six months, I’ve had time to reflect on how my own relationship with technology has influenced me. Immediately upon stepping away, I noticed how social media had taken hold of my desire to make and create things and, in turn, changed my passion for helping into somewhat of a duty or obligation that I didn’t originally sign up for. Social media is a powerful tool that has the power to bring us closer. And I noticed that it also has the ability to destroy our authenticity and our creativity by making us all act the same while keeping us emotionally exhausted and socially separate. That’s not something I want to participate in. Taking time away has allowed me to connect more deeply with the people around me.

It’s a hard time to be human right now. It’s a hard time to be online. It’s unprecedented to have a front row seat to collective suffering at scale. It induces a sense of helplessness and pulls on the parts of us that want to help and be helped. It brings out our most fearful thoughts and our survival instincts. Maybe it’s not ethical or moral to turn away at this important time. Or maybe it’s not healthy to be constantly exposing ourselves to the things we cannot control or change. I’ve sat with the nuance of being a global citizen. Personally, being on social media has increased my awareness and it has also been a great source of stress.

I’m not interested in watching violent videos on loop. I’m not interested in hot takes or unqualified opinions. I’m not interested in fighting. I’m not interested in polarization and living at the extremes. I’m not interested in projecting my anger, fear, alarm, and overwhelm onto complete strangers. I’m not interested in letting an algorithm determine my mood. I’m not interested in selling my time and attention to an app. I’m not interested in being addicted to something that doesn’t offer the depth of connection it originally promised.

Social media promised a level of connection and community that I’m not yet convinced it can provide us. Rising rates of loneliness, unprecedented rates of separation and divorce, rapid declines in friendship, and an increase in stress-related health conditions prove that what we’re doing isn’t working. Social media isn’t the only cause of these trends but I do think it’s a layer we cannot ignore. So, I chose to step away for a bit and see how things changed.

Living as avatars of ourselves
I’m not interested in being chronically online. I don’t want to live in cyberspace. I’ve tried it and it’s not for me. The deeper I fall into cyberspace, the further I am from being myself and being present with those around me. Social media is not a real reflection of what’s truly real (and it never has been). That’s not to say there aren’t pockets of truth-telling. It’s just not a reliable reflection of our lives in the real world. In fact, it often makes me question my perception of what’s real and what’s not. When I scroll, it makes me more fearful of the future rather than inspired or hopeful. It doesn’t make me feel connected to myself and, at its worst, it doesn’t make me feel human. It doesn’t make me feel good.

Here’s how I understand it. It’s almost like we’ve become avatars of ourselves. We’ve become perfectly fine with living in two realities— the one we experience online and the one we experience in real life. Since being away, I’ve noticed a dual-immersion effect. We aren’t just living one life. We are living two. In a way, many of us are acting like ambassadors of ourselves, caught between these two separate but overlapping realities.

Trying to be the most perfect avatar of ourselves is exhausting. It has us performing a lifestyle we aren’t actually living. It traps us in a pattern of freeze and immobilization, making us into mannequins who focus more on the external facade and lack the substance or human capacity for connection. Being constantly online keeps us in a cycle of performing wellness instead of actually experiencing it. Being constantly online disconnects us from ourselves such that it distracts us from being who we really are in service of what’s cool, what’s trending, and what’s popular.

The big questions I’m asking myself
I wanted to share some of the patterns I’m noticing within myself and the other people around me in the hopes that it might help you reflect on some patterns of your own:

Are we living like we’re in a movie? Now, I don’t just mean that we’ve romanticized our lives to the point where we expect everything to be perfect. I’m also talking about the desire to document every little thought, feeling, opinion, situation, moment, and experience. An obsessive need to record, document, or jot everything down in our Notes app keeps us from being truly present.

Are we giving in to constant exaggerations? Being chronically online might be making us more focused on becoming a more exaggerated, interesting, or compelling version of ourselves rather than just being our true selves. Being online all the time changes our language, and not always for the better. In some cases, this also leads to more polarization and more extreme forms of thinking.

Are we unintentionally creating new rules of engagement? The fear of judgment in the interconnected digital world prompts people to project a polished image. It compels us to conform to everyone else’s standards and expectations too. It might also be causing us to avoid showing aspects of ourselves that might be perceived negatively. Does this create a heightened sense of concern about social perception and how we’re being perceived?

Is it real social connection or is it just validation-seeking? Sometimes I wonder if being online all the time creates perfectionistic standards and expectations for how we engage and relate with others. I wonder if there’s a new narcissistic-level of desire for validation and affirmation. What are we trying to make people see? What are we hoping that they will think about us? What parts of ourselves should we display or put out there?

Are social validation features creating new norms? The pursuit of likes, comments, and followers creates a culture where individuals seek external validation and public affirmation, leading us to prioritize the development of our online persona instead of getting to know our true selves. We’ve also become more lonely and are seemingly becoming more risk-averse.

Have we done away with social etiquette? The shift towards digital communication has also created a space where the way one is perceived online becomes a critical aspect of personal and professional interactions, which influences how we communicate and present ourselves. I wonder: Are we losing our ability to thoughtfully edit ourselves in different contexts? Are the lines between different types of relationships, such as friends, family members, co-workers, and bosses becoming blurry? Where are the guidelines and the limits? Is there still a boundary between personal and professional?

Is our life on the internet more like our home or our workplace? Our online avatars, and the movies we make of our lives for our social groups, seem to blur the lines between personal and professional and between home and work. Has the internet become an extension of our personal and social lives or does the way we show up online more closely resemble the way we would show up at work? Is it our new living room or is it the new public town square?

Does being constantly online create constant paradox? There seems to be a constant balancing of opposites when you’re constantly online. It’s almost like we’re experiencing that dual-immersion effect I was talking about, where we’re living between two worlds: the one that is real and the one that is created or imagined. In the back-and-forth, you’re supposed to care and not care about the right things. You’re supposed to prove that you’re serious about the important things and unserious about unimportant things. You’re supposed to show that you’re bothered by these things and unbothered by those things. It’s constant confusion about what’s in and what’s out.

Are we feeding the culture of constant comparison? The constant exposure to others’ curated lives fosters a comparative culture, leading people to meticulously shape their online presence to measure up to perceived societal standards and expectations. The pressure to perform and conform is high, leaving us fearful of judgment, criticism, and social rejection.

Are we feeding the culture of constant competition? In the modern world, each of us have the power to actively curate our personal narratives on the internet, selectively sharing aspects of our lives to create a story that aligns with societal expectations and desired perceptions. We seem to be competing against one another to avoid feeling like we’re not good enough.

Does all of this create an unhealthy need to be seen as unique and different? There’s a lot of pressure to conform and compete, but there’s an added pressure to stand out and be uniquely different. Being different than everyone else, with a unique digital identity or persona, seems like a new currency for popularity in the digital space.

Are algorithms controlling our lives? The more we use social media, the more the algorithm determines what we’re exposed to. It determines what news we see. It determines what content we consume. It determines how often to push us something we like or don’t like. It has the power to determine our mood. It has the ability to capture our attention and pick what we focus on. It also has the powerful ability to change our thoughts, actions, and beliefs. Whew. Yikes.

Being away from social media has taught me a lot about the powerful ways technology shapes our lives. Ever since we’ve developed the ability to problem solve, humans have used various forms of technology to make our lives easier. My experience has shown me that technology isn’t inherently bad but when it has the power to change how we think, feel, and relate, I think that warrants a closer look at how each of us use it.

If my work with my clients has taught me anything about social media and smartphone use, it’s that this technology impacts each of us differently. I’ve learned that addictive technologies are my drug of choice and social validation features are unhealthy forms of fuel for me. Like any drug, digital drugs are powerful in that they have the ability to demand our attention, rewire our habits, and change how we think and feel.

Social media is a powerful tool if and when it’s used for good. As much as it has the power to bring us closer, it also has the ability to disconnect us from our most human instincts by hacking the bottom of our brain stems.

As I navigate my evolving relationship with social media, I invite you to reflect on your own patterns too.

Thank you to those who supported my work in 2023. I look forward to sharing more of my reflections this year. I’m happy to be back to long-form writing.