Displaying your #authenticself online has been a rising trend in recent years as people resist the unhealthy highlight reel approach to using social media. But throw a pandemic into the mix and the art of orchestrating the perfect shot is as good as dead. Not only are we re-entering the world and looking different – we’re embracing Y2K maximalism in all its butterfly accessory glory – but we’ve also given our digital selves an overhaul. On Instagram, blurry photos have become the standard instead of hyper-stylized images; and it’s now considered cringe-inducing to pretend you’re in the perfect relationship (or post a hint of your partner except for their fuzzy left elbow). Even celebrities aren’t immune to the changing tide: Last week, Bella Hadid posted a carousel of images of herself crying in front of her 47 million followers on Instagram, saying she’s finding it “the longer the harder” not to share my truth here. .
Proof that we’ve achieved digital authenticity is the growing number of people announcing their worst – or most #toxic – traits online. On TikTok, which is considered more “authentic” than other social media apps, users post videos with everything from captures (“I never make myself feel anything in front of people, so I don’t get hurt”) to their non-idealized personality traits ( “I get jealous very quickly” and “I have a huge ego”). Claiming one’s toxicity, or potentially harmful qualities, has even made its way onto Twitter. In recent weeks, posts like “My toxic trait is being mean when I really love you” and “My toxic quality is that my sadness turns into destructive anger” have accumulated thousands of likes and even more reshares.
While it may sound a bit strange to list your bad behavior publicly, using the internet as a form of therapy is nothing new. Take, for example, Reddit’s ‘Am I the Asshole?’ forum — consistently one of the site’s most engaged sections — where users crowdsource answers to questions about whether they’re acting fairly or unfairly in situations. While some posts are almost absurd (AITA for eating too many cucumbers?), general conversations encourage critical thinking, empathy, and understanding. The problem with this latest spin-off is figuring out where self-awareness and helpful analysis of one’s personality turn into virtue signaling: inauthenticity disguised as authenticity. Are we just masking a desperate need to feel unique and different, even if we get there by pointing out our flaws?
This growing trend parallels that of a similar recent online phenomenon where people (all of us, according to TikTok) diagnose themselves and others with pathologies, such as ADHD or a highly sensitive person (HSP). These forecasts are being generously handed out by everyone from high school students to registered psychologists, leading some to worry about overdiagnosis, disease appropriation, and eye-rolling others who see the messages as nothing more than a new way for people to think about things. self talk : main character energy but make it medical. As with much of the social media discourse about these ailments and conditions, many of the toxic properties currently airing are not toxic at all. Do you need time for yourself? The same. Do you find it difficult to be vulnerable and have you pushed people away as a result? Me too.
It’s easy to doubt the lasting effects of such digital moves. However, embracing your toxicity can be seen as an antithesis to the rise of toxic positivity — the cultural tendency to reject negative emotions or traits and instead respond to fear with superficial assurances. In other words, a “rose-colored glasses” way of seeing the world, something that has recently manifested itself in a new species: toxic productivity. “Awareness of our less desirable traits can indicate self-acceptance, which is an aspect of psychological well-being,” says Dr. Zorana Ivcevic Pringle, director of the Creativity and Emotions Lab at Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. “Acknowledging one’s less desirable traits can be an individual action aimed at greater authenticity and combating the damaging belief that people should always maintain a positive attitude.” Whether the trend is inherently healthy, Dr. Ivcevic Pringle says, depends on what’s broadcast: “Sharing traits associated with introversion or emotional sensitivity can be a sign of embracing one’s vulnerability. But sharing traits or attitudes associated with narcissism or Machiavellianism is less positive.”
The proliferation of such content also facilitates a place for young people to find community at a time when we are desperate for connection. While “AITA” threads are anonymous, reports of toxic properties are not. Even when shared on TikTok with a catchy song, the trend encourages young people to not only explore the negatives of their personalities, but own them, creating space for conversation, learning and growth. On Twitter, the message “My toxic quality is that I don’t know how to ask for help, I disappear and come back when I feel better”, received thousands of comments, such as: “You are not alone”, and “Are we the same person?”
For TikTok user Allegra, the trend has even led to real friendships. In the beginning, posting her toxic qualities — including that she’s “incredibly possessive and jealous,” being a “good liar and manipulator,” and that she can “cut people off without regret” — wasn’t that deep: She saw others posting of them and wanted to participate. But the experience eventually became cathartic. “Posting my problems on TikTok feels like a liberation. It’s a way for me to express and share feelings that I might not otherwise talk about or question,” she tells iD. “Seeing and speaking to other people who are also struggling really helps too.”
Allegra has clocked in on the recent spike in people being more authentic online, saying that posts like this have led to forging lasting connections, both online and offline. “For most of my life I was bullied and never felt accepted, but through TikTok I was able to find a community of like-minded people going through the same shit that I was.” Leilene, whose toxic trait of “wanting to end the whole relationship” when angry, has gone viral, and she feels the same. “Posting it has really allowed me to assess why I’m behaving this way and accept the reasons behind it,” she says. “I now realize I have serious trust issues and I’m starting the process of actually unpacking and overcoming them.”
It’s not just social media that desperately needs an overhaul of authenticity. People have long expressed their disdain for the dating app culture, where those who swipe on apps are encouraged to upload photos and captions that portray them in both the figurative and literal best light. For Sophie, who regularly posts about her mental health and struggles, moving away from that facade feels overwhelmingly positive. “Obviously there are people jumping on the bandwagon to get likes or in an effort to go viral, but overall the coverage is pretty positive,” she says.
Like Bella’s tearful mail and the influx of toxic properties owned online, the openness of strangers on the Internet makes Sophie and others like her feel less alone. “I actually went on a date with someone who initially messaged me to talk about a message I wrote about my bad relationship habits,” she adds. If nothing else, listing someone’s toxic traits seems like a less narcissistic way to pass time than explaining why you’re more empathetic and creative than others (because you’re an HSP, of course). A suggestion for Hinge’s next round of questions? “How are you poisonous?”
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