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Michele Kerulis Apr 20, 2018

The Science of Selfies: Empowering or Narcissistic?

When you see someone taking a selfie, what thoughts come to mind? Do you smile at a young person taking a picture, or do you roll your eyes and complain about people being too narcissistic? Everyone seems to have an opinion about these modern self-portraits, and scientific research can be used to back up different points of view.

The selfie as a sign of narcissism is a new idea. Researchers have found that narcissistic personality traits are more related to selfie-taking among men than women, as men who post selfies are likely to have an elevated sense of vanity than those who do not. People who have higher self-esteem and larger followings on social media are also more likely to take selfies and share them. While some researchers suggest that viewing your own selfie allows you to be more objective about yourself, others point that that many selfie-takers with lower self-esteem might refrain from posting them online because they fear negative feedback.

Yet, other researchers and many counselors choose to focus on the ways that selfies can generate empowerment through connecting people and elevating change. Empowered selfie-takers feel at ease with themselves and are able to take goal-directed action in life. Empowering hashtags that accompany selfies like #transformationtuesday or #365feministselfie can put faces to ideas of personal growth as well as societal challenges.

The young creators of an art project called The Selfie Project reported that selfies empower individuals to celebrate and preserve their own happiness. Nine middle-school-aged girls from the Longmont Colorado Girl Scout Troop 3392 created The Selfie Project to help people recognize inner beauty through social media.

Using Selfies in Counseling

There are many ways that counselors can think about and incorporate selfie-culture into the counseling room. The following four recommendations can help counselors learn about how to use selfies in session and talk about multiple issues with clients.

Check biases at the door.  Opinions about selfies tend to skew toward both poles of opinion. So if you’re quick to assume that selfie-taking is harmful or a sign of narcissism, check that bias as you learn about clients’ motivations and the function of the behavior. Counselors gain insight based on fact rather than jumping to conclusions, and social media habits of their clients should be no exception. You might be surprised how selfie-taking is a positive force in the life of your clients.  

Encourage selfie journals. Counselors working with young adults who enjoy taking pictures of themselves can encourage their clients to keep “selfie journals” of activities they enjoy. Keeping a selfie journal can help clients recognize people and activities that promote energy and self-compassion and can provide positive examples of coping in times of stress or change.

Examine the evidence. Browsing and taking selfies can also be useful for a client learning cognitive behavioral techniques. For example, if clients already have an extensive record of selfies saved on their phone or social media, it might prove useful to have them scroll through and identify all the evidence that is in contrast to their negative core beliefs.

Facilitate good thoughts. Some clients may hint or divulge that they are taking selfies for reasons that don’t promote good mental health. For example, they may depend on constant positive feedback about their appearance to manage their anxiety or depression. Counselors can encourage clients to think about alternative approaches to selfie-taking, such as taking pictures that highlight their skills rather than their appearance or remembering that they are more than the sum total of their photos or social media likes. Clients can also practice taking pictures without posting them and identifying their own positive characteristics rather than relying on others for feedback. 

It is important to remember that using selfies in counseling won’t be a good fit for every client. But as counselors, we’re called to help clients identify their strengths and use them to pursue change. So if the art of self-portraits is a strength of a client, embrace it and do not dismiss it as superficial or trendy. Consider how you can test the limits of your own comfort with selfie-talk and challenge your biases about this modern self-portrait. You might be surprised what your clients can teach you about self-love in a digital world.  
Dr. Michele Kerulis is faculty with Counseling@Northwestern and specializes in counseling athletes, lifestyle, and wellness. Dr. Kerulis is the Midwest Region Representative to the ACA Governing Council and an award winning clinician. Tweet @michelekerulis 




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