Ijeoma Kola wearing tibi balloon sleeve dress and white doc martens in Williamsburg, Brooklyn

The Emotional Toll of Social Media Authenticity

There are typically two kinds of social media sharers. There are the people who post every once in a while, or perhaps even daily, photos of their outfits or latest manicure or their Starbucks coffee order, with captions that highlight the sale price of their top, their current favorite music lyric, a batch of emojis, or a quippy motivational quote. Let’s call this person social media sharer A (SMS A).

Then there’s social media sharer B (SMS B), who often writes long captions filled with ruminating thoughts and analyses of their inner most feelings. SMS B shares their intimate family moments, posts makeup free selfies, heck, even cries about their failures and frustrations on camera. As long as we don’t find SMS B annoying, we tend to view them as “more authentic” than SMS A (though there is a very thin line between authenticity and oversharing).

Though SMS A gives no insight into who they really are by separating their social life from their lived experiences, the cloud of mystery around their persona can sometimes create intrigue that leads to increased following and engagement. SMS B’s charm and attraction is their realness, their familiarity, their around-the-way persona that makes them feel relatable, tangible even, through the phone screen.

I definitely considered myself SMS B, someone whose account blends captivating storytelling with real, honest, and transparent authenticity that captures people’s interest and sparks conversation. In fact, I have spent a lot of my social media strategy intentionally avoiding the approach of SMS A and subconsciously judging such sharers for not doing the “hard work” of going beyond cute pictures and emoji captions. I took great pride in, and marketed myself for my ability to create content with substance, for coming up with insightful, educational, and often personal narratives to embed in my captions, so that they have larger meaning beyond where to buy something, what I’m eating, and my knowledge of a current top 40 song. But here’s what SMS B’s don’t like to talk about:

Being open, transparent, and “authentic” on social media is FREAKIN’ EXHAUSTING.

I remember shortly after I shared my most honest Instagram post, where I opened up about our fertility journey and miscarriage. It was, at the time, my most engaged post ever (it has since been eclipsed by happier times at my PhD convocation), and sparked so so many comments, DMs, emails, calls, texts, etc from people sharing their own stories and words of support, encouragement, and prayer. The response was overwhelmingly positive, but every time I replied to a message, I had to relive and explain the situation all over again, which was, to say the least, emotionally taxing. Even before the post went up, I discussed it at length with Jonathan, which was an extensive emotional exercise on its own. He too, despite his intentional limited engagement with social media, received messages and phone calls from concerned and well meaning friends and family members wanting to help in any way possible, meaning that my online authenticity, though conducted for the greater good, caused us both additional emotional strain.

Ijeoma Kola reading Radiant Magazine at Sixty LES Hotel

Regardless of whether a social post touches on personal struggles, successes, or even hilarious anecdotes, there is an emotional burden that goes into the preparation of the story, as well as managing the responses to it once it’s shared. Every time I share about my PhD, I receive at least two questions from current or prospective PhD students who are eager for advice from someone, who looks like them, who has done it already. When I share something about being in an intercultural marriage, I learn about countless women’s various long-distance relationship scenarios and their struggles to balance their love with their devotion to their parents, who’d prefer for them to settle down with someone more familiar.

The engagement and communications that authentic posts elicit are exactly why I love social media and the audience and community I’ve built on my platforms. Though I’m sometimes overwhelmed by personal questions or requests for tailored advice, these messages inspire and motivate me to continue doing the hard work of being an SMS B. There are times though, and increasingly so, when I envy the relative anonymity and perceived emotional detachment of SMS As (though I could be completely mistaken and overlooking a different emotional toll on this kind of social media user too). It would be cool if for a day, my DMs could be filled with easy to answer questions like “where do you get your nails done?” rather than “what should I do if my parents don’t like my boyfriend and are threatening to disown me?” One answer is simply a recitation of facts; the other requires emotional intelligence, sensitivity, and an unending fear that you might advise someone the wrong way (which is why I preface many of my replies with “this is what worked for me, not sure if it would work for you”).

So what should SMS Bs do when overwhelmed with the unseen emotional burden that comes with our approach to social media? Step back. Give yourself the grace and freedom to post without a deep caption. Use your emojis. Don’t post at all. LOG OFF. Make sure that you’re addressing internally the things that you share externally, and realize that sharing alone, though integral to healing, is not enough. Do whatever you need to do to refuel for the next time you expose another layer of yourself. And don’t judge those who protect their peace by opting to be SMS As. Recognize that you are no better, just different.

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