In 2013, the Oxford Dictionary announced their word of the year to be ‘selfie.’ Four years later the expression is as baked into the lexicon as any word on the planet. Next time you’re at a concert, ballgame, or bar take a look around you and you’re pretty much guaranteed to see someone doing a selfie at some point.
Certainly, the self-portrait isn’t a new concept. The first actual ‘selfie’ is attributed to Robert Cornelius in 1839 and painters have been rendering self-portraits for thousands of years. But it wasn’t until the renaissance and the popularization of the individual as an important subject that the self-portrait gained prominence. Van Gogh famously painted himself dozens of times.
Still, most would agree that it wasn’t until the advent of the smartphone that we saw the true explosion of popularity in what we now know as the selfie. At face value, the selfie seems like harmless fun. Most of us take selfies and many of us for take them for the sheer novelty of it - Here’s me doing something cool. Point. Click. Share.
But the selfie is more than an innocent opportunistic portrait. The selfie tells us a lot more about our collective ailments than you might think. The underlying narrative of the selfie is about manufacturing a contrived, packaged, and marketed image of the self. The emphasis of the selfie is purely aesthetic and the connotation is you are what you look like, who you roll with, and where you hang out.
The selfie represents the height of irony because the representation of a selfie is a projection – an image of how we portray ourselves contextualized by the environment in which it occurs. By definition, a selfie is actually one of the furthest things from our true authentic self. Being portrayed or perceived as popular, doing an activity, or being scantily clad merely draws attention to your external self, not your real self.
When we’re focused on the selfie, we’re focused on the result – crafting the perfect image, sharing with our ‘friends,’ and hoping for validation. This draws you farther away from your authentic self. When you’re focused on the external you, you can’t be focused on the internal you, the external environment around you, and the present moment. To quote a blog that I read frequently, “you cannot get there…you can only be there.”
The utter and complete focus on the self means we neglect the planet, we neglect our neighbors, and again, ironically, we neglect the true needs of the self. If there is a word that pretty much sums up the current cultural sentiment, ‘neglect’ nears the top of the list. Crumbling infrastructure, divisiveness, polarization, addiction, fractured relationships, and a failing environment are all situations of neglect. When we’re all about us, it means we’re not about anyone or anything else.
There is only one remedy – Real Self Love. And with such love the opportunity for more community, more connection, more commonality, and more creativity. Says author Sebastian Junger, “human beings need three basic things in order to be content: they need to feel competent at what they do; they need to feel authentic in their lives; and they need to feel connected to others. These values are considered "intrinsic" to human happiness and far outweigh "extrinsic" values such as beauty, money and status.”
The selfie shows the world your extrinsic or at least a counterfeit ideal of what you’d like your extrinsic to be. But the intrinsic requires true focus on the self. Your genuine nature can’t be seen from a camera or validated with likes on social media. Real competency, authenticity, and connection can only be achieved through the lens of self-actualization and complete awareness. To find yourself, you have to lose yourself.
Instead of taking the selfie, turn the camera around and be present. You might just see yourself.