Instagram can be painful in a breakup, but it helped me practise being myself

Seeing his name as part of a wider list of friends, colleagues and ex-boyfriends who’ve watched my stories reminds me of the many different ways of loving and being loved.


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It was the week before Christmas when my long-term - and newly long-distance - boyfriend let on that he thought our relationship should end. Three years have since passed, yet I can still remember our strange final few days together: a ski accident that induced mild concussion and a perfect night out on New Year's Eve that confused everything all the more.

I remember feeling like there wasn’t enough air to breathe – but I also remember discovering something that would slowly help ease the hurt. 

The same soon-to-be ex had recently joined a photo sharing app called Instagram, and would show me pictures of our mutual friends’ beautifully prepared brunches and sultry selfies. His own posts at the time were portraits of America, where he’d moved for work, and his images formed small love letters to the urban world: to over-looked, empty streets; drive-in restaurants at night; a lost hat.

Looking back now, it was as if he was attempting to explain the world back to itself – through an iPhone, darkly. Yet I was sceptical: sharing my own life on yet another social media platform seemed so needlessly self-involved.

Then a throw-away comment, made on one of those last nights together, made me reassess my aversion. “I don’t know what you’re interested in?” he said as we were going to sleep.

I knew it was just one of those unthinking things that people say when things are tense. But I was also aware of how hard I was finding it to strike the right balance between building an identity as a couple, while still maintaining my own. If my best friend didn’t know what I liked and cared about - then who did? Did I?

In the weeks and months after the break-up, Instagram offered a way to practice being me again. Each picture became a small act of self-expression. They reminded me of things that made had me smile long before any boy had: of snowdrops and seascapes and roads to new places. Sharing them also helped me feel less alone and, at a time when so much of my life was in flux, offered a sense of control – even if only over what filter to use.

I still often feel grateful for the way the app celebrates the small and seemingly insignificant. Unlike on Facebook, where observations about daily life can come across as indulgent, Instagram delights in the drama of the everyday: in the milk at breakfast and the cracks in the pavement on a walk home. As Virginia Woolf wrote: “In the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment in June”. 

I would even credit Instagram with helping establish the friendship my ex and I have since formed. Continuing to follow him was, at first, a minefield of reminders that he was doing just fine without me, not to mention an anxiety-inducing invitation to stalk the new women in his life. Yet each mutual “like” is its own small act of kindness and has more than made the decision not to block him worthwhile.

I’m not sure that today’s Instagram would be as helpful as it was three years ago, however. Apps change as quickly as we do, and the introduction of Instagram “Stories” now allows users to post images or short videos that can only be watched for up to 24 hours.

Like a kind of fast-food alternative to the main meal, these Insta-Stories encourage even greater divulgence about the minutiae of our daily lives. And, most compulsively of all, they reveal who exactly has seen your posts. 

Friends report that seeing ex-partners in these lists can be confusing and hurtful: if someone still cares enough to watch your stories, then why couldn’t they care enough to stay? And I’m not sure that I’d have been able to cope with this heightened degree of visibility during the break-up of something long-term.

But a recent dating experience has given me a small taste of what heartache on today’s Instagram feels like – and it isn’t all bad. 

When this latest, all too short, dating experiment collapsed, I was unusually torn-up. I immediately muted the person on Facebook. But when it came to Instagram I hesitated: seeing him continue his intriguing life would be painful, yes – yet I’d also be able to tell when he’d been watching me.

Each time his name pops up under my stories, it helps hold back my urge to message or text. Like a nicotine patch that staves off the need to smoke, these small doses of attention satisfy my compulsion to connect while respecting his request for distance.

However thin and ghostly the tie, I find it heartening that I can still follow his eclectic adventures (checking out historic churches). Plus seeing his name as part of a wider list of friends, colleagues and ex-boyfriends who’ve watched my stories reminds me of the many different ways of loving and being loved that I’ve been lucky enough to know. 

This isn’t to say I don’t still worry about the app’s negative effects. We all contain so many more selves than single images can capture, and I fear browsing my dates’ social media profiles leaves me with misconceptions that can take time to undo. I also worry that all this online curation inflates our sense of self to the point that it eclipses our ability to truly see and listen to others when we meet in the flesh.

I’d hate it if those things are true, and research certainly suggests that Instagram has its down-sides: according to a study by the Royal Society for Public Health, it is the most likely app to negatively impact young people’s mental health. But it is also a place where mending hearts doesn’t have to happen alone, and where we can continue to share the things that bind.

India Bourke is the online editor for the New Statesman's international edition.

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