Have you ever googled what an iceberg looks like underwater? You will be treated to a mesmerizing scroll of weird, icy protrusions — enormous and yet strangely invisible in that all you can see from above are their perfect, gleaming peaks. The images are an apt metaphor for the complexities of identity in the digital age, wherein small and polished fractions of our gargantuan, chaotic human selves are designated for public consumption.

The more I write about myself online or share about myself on social media, the starker the contrast between peak and iceberg becomes. My internet self is funny, articulate and outgoing; my real self is self-deprecating, a bit awkward and shy unless I feel totally comfortable. My internet self prioritizes aesthetic over utilitarian function; my real self loves being warm and comfortable. My internet self is eager to insert an opinion; my real self wants to hear what everyone else thinks first. My internet self is buoyant and extroverted; my real self is a ball of introverted angst. My internet self knows how to make friends (easily!); my real self wants you to make the first move (please?). My internet self is a series of carefully selected two-dimensional words and images; my real self lives inside a body even when she’d rather not and unbuttons her jeans after lunch and flushes unfiltered pink at the first sign of feeling insecure and sometimes says the wrong thing or doesn’t say anything at all even when she should.

Is it surprising that sometimes I prefer the former? That I wish I could detach my iceberg peak from its unwieldy base and drift along, unencumbered by the ambiguity of being a flesh-and-blood person in the world?

The internet is an incredibly effective mechanism for broadcasting a compartmentalized version of yourself, one that fits neatly into a square image and corresponding caption, which is why it’s easy to be better online than off. Online, I have the freedom to select what I want to say and how I want to say it, and if I change my mind, I can usually go back and edit it or delete it altogether. Offline, I’m just me, and sometimes that feels like too much or not enough. It rarely feels just right.

As a writer, the freedom to select what I want to say and how I want to say it is particularly appealing because I feel more at ease crafting my identity through text than I do through speech. I often talk about things in my writing that I would be uncomfortable talking about in person — things like body image and social anxiety, which occupy enormous expanses in the underwater geography of my whole self. Writing gives me time and space to break off pieces of those vulnerabilities, to scrub off the ugliest shame barnacles and nudge the “okay” bits to the surface for air.

Some barnacles are too gnarly to write my way through just yet, and that’s fine, but my awareness of what I haven’t said can be difficult to reconcile with what I have. The discrepancy isn’t always apparent, but every now and then, on bad self-esteem days, it feels cavernous.

Forgiving that gap is a work in progress. I try to appreciate that even though my internet self and my real self might assume different shapes or poke out in different directions, they’re still carved from the same mountain of ice. The underbelly of that mountain may be studded with a colony of my worst hang-ups, but it’s also my greatest source of empathy as a result. Without that, I wouldn’t even float in the first place.

Photo by Louisiana Mei Gelpi; collage by Edith Young.

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