Gillian Harvey: Can we ever be authentic online?

Read the latest column from freelance writer, author and mum-of-five Gillian Harvey.

I spent my early 20s struggling with anxiety – and struggling to hide it. I didn’t want to tell my family, my friends, how ill I actually was. I was worried they’d think I was mad; determined to tackle things privately in my own way.

Let’s just say, it didn’t work out. Repressing and anxiety disorder and continually projecting a bright and positive exterior has a shelf-life. And when you can no longer ‘fake it,’ you’re heading for a fall.

I crashed.

At 24, I admitted some of my issues to a doctor, who helped a bit. But I still struggled to talk openly and honestly about all my thoughts and feelings. I held things back. Then at 28, I crashed again. This time, it finally felt like I had nothing to lose.

Opening up saved me.

Since then I’ve been a huge believer in being completely open. I talk to my children about everything. I have written about my struggles for national publications. It’s not due to some self-serving urge to be ‘known’ as much as in the hope that someone just like me will read it and feel empowered.

That’s a long-winded way of saying that as far as possible, I always try to be open, honest and true about myself – who I am, what I struggle with, how I feel. Because I refuse to be ashamed of playing the cards that nature dealt me to the best of my ability. I am who I am.

But I struggle with social media. Like most of us, I’m pretty reliant on it – especially at the moment when it seems the only way to get in touch with others.

And I’m always honest – I don’t post anything I don’t truly think, or lie about things that have or haven’t happened.

Even so, I do wonder whether we can ever be truly authentic online.

I post anecdotes about funny moments with the kids. I share photos I’ve taken during the day. I get involved in debate and banter on Twitter. I try to engage on Instagram, although it’s way out of my comfort zone.

But I’m still making a choice. Someone browsing through my social media might think: ‘wow, what a great mum!’ Or ‘isn’t she funny!’ or ‘wow she looks young for her age.’ Because I’ve posted a picture of the kids in the park, or recounted an anecdote about an encounter in the supermarket, or chosen the best pic of myself where my wrinkles aren’t on full display.

I shy away from some discussions because I know they’ll lead to a Twitter pile-on – meaning that even in this ‘open’ forum, I don’t necessarily express myself fully.

In my novel ‘Everything is Fine,’ the protagonist, Jessica, paints a completely false picture of her life to please others – with hilarious results. And I’ve just started reading ‘The Bright Side of Going Dark’ by Kelly Harms – which has a similar theme, although explored in a completely different way.

Both the novels and my own experience have made me wonder whether that’s possible in the world of soundbites and quick snaps we now live in. 

The answer? Despite our best efforts, probably not. Not fully.

The only remedy is to constantly remind yourself when you look at other’s posts that they are just snapshots; that none of us know the full story behind the scenes. 

And to never be afraid to open up.

Gillian Harvey is a writer and mum-of-five. Her debut novel Everything is Fine is out now.