The selfie and the commodification of our infant desire to be ‘seen’.

The selfie is viewed as a way to be ‘seen’ in an attention economy — it sets the algorithm in motion. But it’s interesting, this business of being ‘seen’. It is something us therapists are quite preoccupied with — in ourselves and our clients. Being seen deeply and loved for who we are is a human need and often a craving. Is the selfie commodifying our most basic infant desire?

My thoughts on selfies are multifold, so let’s begin with the simplest one — I am self-conscious about them. It is not the image, but the act itself. The discomfort of being brutally aware of my desire to be seen is often too much to bear. I am often caught between a deep desire to stay completely hidden and also be seen fully, as a breathing human. And there lies one of the greatest truths Winnicott spoke, ‘It is a joy to be hidden, but a disaster not to be found’.

This takes me back to the childhood game of ‘hide and seek’, where being hidden was a delight until an eerie silence followed when nobody found us, or even worse — no longer wanted to look. The act of taking a selfie is a proactive one, where we might (if we pay attention) become frightfully aware of taking matters into our own hands about our deepest desire to be seen. And not just seen — but control how we are seen too. Our need to be seen wholly is clouded by a socialized shame for who we really are. And so I wonder, which parts of myself does the selfie really capture?

As a therapist, I grapple daily with the conundrum of staying hidden and being seen. I connect so deeply with my clients, entering their world. And I connect in these hours most deeply as myself. Here I feel most myself because I embody being congruent, reflective and slowed down. But the truth is, my clients rarely know the ongoings of my daily life. I exist in their reality and their imagination — as they do in mine. But I digress. Every day I wonder, as a therapist using Instagram, how to play with and understand my desire to stay hidden yet be seen.

These days, I have tried to use the selfie medium more. But every time, I post I want to delete it. I want people to know my thoughts, feelings, views and fierce love but do I need them to see my face? And if I do, where is this need coming from? I have this image of a cave. I stay too long in it and come out for some sunshine. I enjoy it for a while, but then the sun burns my face and I no longer feel protected but exposed. I retreat. I equate the sunburn with the male gaze, capitalism, losing my sense of rebellion in this commodified world and offering data to companies that exploit for profit. The sunburn is also, as my partner never forgets to tell me, losing my presence in a moment which diminishes the moment itself.

Selfies can be empowering and have made room for representation — people who were hidden have proactively been found. We might feel we have control over our own narrative with a selfie, but are we conforming or freeing ourselves? We can become aware of our unmet needs and deepest desires, through this act if we pay close attention and this can feel vulnerable. Can our ‘real selves’ ever be captured in a picture we can retake or do we have to be experienced, felt and held? Some of us are judgmental of this phenomenon and I wonder about the losses it has caused us in our experience of the world.

The next time we take a selfie, I hope we can find compassion for the parts of us that stay hidden and the ones that need to be seen. And allow them both time to ebb and flow.

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