Lessons from Eighth Grade

Pseudo-self is “pretend” self. People pretend to be more or less important than they really are, stronger or weaker than they really are, more or less attractive than they really are. A group can “pump up” an individual’s level of functioning to the point that he can do things he had been unable to do on his own. This higher level of functioning, however, is totally dependent on the group’s continuing support. – Family Evaluation, Dr. Murray Bowen and Dr. Michael Kerr

This week I went to see the movie Eighth Grade. The film follows Kayla, a modern 8th grader who publishes a series of positive, self-help videos on YouTube that display a pretend, opposite version of Kayla’s actual quiet, uncertain, and anxious self. Many reviewers have remarked that the film is an insightful commentary on how social media, the perfect selfie, and the lure of Internet fame have shaped today’s youth.

But as I watched the film, I couldn’t help but think the exact opposite. . .

The “pretend” selves of today’s youth are not really that different from any previous generation. In one scene, a high school senior interrogates 14-year-old Kayla about how “kids her age” have a different experience with social media.

“When did you get SnapChat?”

“Fifth grade,” she says.

“Fifth grade! She’s, like, wired differently,” he says to his friends.

We love to pretend there are vast generational differences between ourselves and others. But are there, really? We love to blame social media for our increased focus on cultivating our “pretend” selves. But the truth is that humans have been masters at pretending to be more important, calmer, and more mature than we really are for a LONG TIME. Shakespeare’s plays are full of people trying to pass as a higher status than they actually were. History is the story of creatures who are quick to pretend or imitate in order to gain approval. It’s a pretty adaptive mechanism, but it leaves our functioning dependent on the reactions of others.

Perhaps social media just represents a new type of relationship—a relationship with a platform or a group of random individuals rather than simply one’s family, tribe, or community. We’ve always been vulnerable to outsourcing our confidence, but now we’re just able to toss the net a little farther and tug on it every ten seconds.

It’s easy to see a symptom as a “cause” of a problem, when in reality it’s just a piece of the puzzle. We’re quick to tell kids, our peers, and even ourselves to not spend so much time on social media, but addressing the symptom doesn’t necessarily change how we function in relationship to others. A person could spend zero minutes on Facebook a week because she derives her sense of self from praise from her boss or her spouse. Or an individual might choose to go on a Twitter-fast for a month and find that he’s constantly texting his family about all his personal victories. It ends up being a game of whack-a-mole if you don’t look past the symptom and see the emotional process in ALL your relationships.

This is why I truly believe that going back to your family is one of the most useful places for working on self. Because if you can learn to calmly share your thinking about parenting with your mother when she disagrees with you, and if you can watch your partner do a terrible job at loading the dishwasher without grabbing the fork out of her hand, then I’m gonna guess that you’re not the kind of person whose ego is deflated by a temporary shortage of Instagram likes.

I’m not saying that tinkering with how you interact with the Internet can’t be a source of self-improvement. But I do think that we are quick to miss the connection between how we operate in our most significant and most anxious relationships and how this influences our “pretend selves” in the rest of life.

So this week, maybe think twice before you poke fun at the teenager on the street who’s tilting her head for the perfect picture. Think about how you pretend to be calmer, more mature, more whatever than you actually are. We are each more than the sum total of people’s reactions to us, so how can your actions be influenced more by your own thoughts, beliefs, and values? How can you act from the inside out and manage your anxiety when people react however they choose? And perhaps most important, how are your primary relationships fertile ground for this practice?

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