Self-expression is the expression of one’s feelings, thoughts, or ideas. It is a reflection of a person’s individuality and autonomy, and is about behaving in line with ones states and traits. It enables one to distinguish oneself from others, reflect on ones beliefs and needs, and leads to self-empowerment.
Self-expression has been found to have a positive influence on individuals. It leads to self-empowerment and plays an important role in self-concept development. Suppression or lack of self-expression can lead to negative consequences on mental health. Therefore, self-expression is a highly significant aspect of behavior and has major implications on development and wellbeing.
There are specific types of people such as introverts, shy individuals, and individuals experiencing loneliness, who are known to have difficulties in self-expression. Introverts due to their physiological structure (high brain arousal) get easily stimulated that causes discomfort in situations that require a lot of social interactions. This makes them to keep to themselves and have reluctance in being involved in social situations.
Shyness is determined by the inhibited temperament often found to be associated with an overly sensitive amygdala (brain area known to be the seat of emotions). The inhibited temperament is characterized fear and distress in relation new situations, people or objects. Due to this, individuals have high levels of physiological activity in response to unfamiliar social situations that makes them to avoid such situations.
The feeling of loneliness, which is an unpleasant experience due to an unfulfilled need for intimacy, often occurs because of a lack of social skills that does not allow individuals to have satisfying interpersonal interactions.
In these cases, self-expression, especially in face-to-face social interactions, becomes difficult. They are highly hesitant in face-to-face interactions making them have very little interaction with people around them. The lack of or very limited social interactions that these individuals have, further, develops to a heightened and highly unfulfilled need for self-expression. The inability in self-express creates a discomforting experience leading to stress, anxiety, and other mental health issues.
For such individuals, the internet or cyberspace turns out to be a comforting space. Cyberspace becomes a platform for such individuals to express themselves. Specific features of the cyberspace enable such individuals to be involved in self-expression, something that they are unable to do so in face-to-face scenarios.
A major feature of the cyberspace is the aspect of anonymity. Anonymity is referred to the inability to identify an individual or the inability for others to identify oneself. In the time when people are very active on social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and tend to share information about themselves, including their own picture, complete anonymity is rarely possible on the internet. However, individuals on the internet have a feeling of social anonymity. Social anonymity refers to the perception of being anonymous, rather than actual or true anonymity.
Social distance, lack of interpersonal cues, and interacting with someone in a different space, instead of being face-to-face, develops a sense of obscurity, which makes the individual perceive him/herself to be relatively anonymous. Being on the internet, despite revealing information about oneself, there is a sense of impersonality, self-control, and liberty, which are characteristics of anonymity. Such anonymity has been found to be associated with privacy, catharsis, and autonomy.
Privacy is the ability to control the amount of contact with others. This may not necessarily mean to in terms of physical presence, but the ability to exert boundary control upon others to interact with oneself. This proves to be very helpful for introverts and shy individuals. Such people often have the feeling of violation of privacy during face-to-face interaction. Having a sense of control over privacy in cyberspace gives a lot of comfort, which makes it easier to interact with others, leading to better self-expression.
Catharsis, the unhindered expression of ones thoughts and feelings to others, is a major aspect of self-expression. Social anonymity makes catharsis easier as compared to face-to-face interaction. Especially for lonely individuals, this feature becomes very helpful. Individuals often hesitate to share their emotional pain of loneliness with others, thinking that it will further drive people away. Anonymity enabling catharsis works perfectly well for lonely individuals. It works well for introverts and shy individuals also, as they do not have to experience discomfort of being with individuals while sharing their thoughts and beliefs.
Autonomy involves being able to behave as freely as possible without worrying about social consequences. Social anonymity almost negates the idea of being judged by others. Introverts and shy and lonely individuals often become very hesitant in front of others. They tend to become highly self-conscious. Especially, shy individuals persistently have the feeling of being negatively scrutinized by others. The feature of autonomy due to social anonymity allows such individuals to be themselves without the fear of being judged others, which further helps in self-expression.
Anonymity on the internet with respect to privacy, catharsis, and autonomy, therefore, becomes very helpful when it comes to introversion, shyness, and loneliness. It makes it easier for such people to express themselves as compared to face-to-face interactions.
Along with social or perceived anonymity, facets of self-awareness in the context of the internet play a significant role in self-expression. Self-awareness refers to conscious self-knowledge. It is a focus, attention on features of the self.  The self-awareness perspective suggests that in different circumstances an individual’s attention is directed to different features of the self. When attention is directed to external factors such as people or surroundings then it is referred to as public self-awareness. When attention is directed to internal aspects such as beliefs, thoughts, feelings, personal memories, etc., then it is referred to as private self-awareness.
Both of these facets or features of self-awareness become important in the cyberspace, especially with respect to self-expression. Public self-awareness makes a person conscious of one’s surroundings and makes the individual behave as per the norms or in ways that are expected. In cyberspace, social anonymity, in terms of social distance and obscurity, reduces this sense of public self-awareness.
This means that the individual does not feel conscious of his/her surroundings and there is little evaluation apprehension and pressure of self-presentation. Apart from this, there are lack of accountability concerns. The person feels that whatever he/she does or says is in the cyberspace and has little to do in their actual life where they have face-to-face interactions.
The cyberspace with little pressure for self-presentation and the lack of accountability concerns is coupled with a sense of comfort where the individual is in his/her own private space, during online interaction. This comfort and high sense of privacy leads to a heightened sense of private self-awareness.
This means that the individual becomes more aware and tends to have greater access to inner thoughts, feelings, and emotions. The heightened sense of private self-awareness will enable the person to be involved in more self-disclosure, that is, revealing of more private and personal information.
Both reduced public sense of self-awareness and heightened private sense of self-awareness work together during online interaction, which is almost the opposite in face-to-face interaction. A heightened public sense of self-awareness and a reduced private sense of self-awareness in face-to-face interactions are often the reasons why introverts, and shy and lonely individuals have difficulties in self-expression. Together a reduced and heightened attention on the public and private aspects of self, in the cyberspace, makes it easier for such individuals to express themselves.
The aspect of deindividuation, a sense of loss of individuality and personal identity, in cyberspace, also enables individuals to be involved in more self-expression, as compared to face-to-face interactions.
Social distance and a lack of interpersonal cues during online interaction result in the deindividuation process. Interpersonal cues are referred to aspects that distinguish one from the other. These cues are very much visible in face-to-face interactions and are not present in online interaction (or are limited in case of video chats).
The deindividuation process reduces personal identity and heightens more of a social identity. During online interactions, this social identity develops with respect to the more salient features, which is being a part of the larger group of cyberspace. In such cases norms develop in accordance to the larger group and individuals tend to adhere to those norms.
The reduced personal identity and heightened social identity with respect to the cyberspace enables the individual to behave and say whatever he/she feels like, with very little hesitation. This little hesitation works well for introverts, and shy and lonely individuals for whom hesitation becomes a major deterrent for self-expression, in face-to-face interaction. The lack of hesitation in cyberspace, due to the process of deindividuation, makes them involved in self-expression in a much better way.
It is due to the aforementioned features of the cyberspace that it has been found that individuals, especially who are hesitant in face-to-face interactions, indulge in more self-disclosure, during online interactions. They feel lesser hesitancy and diminished social awkwardness, in the cyberspace, giving them a greater sense of comfort, enabling them to express themselves in a better manner.
In the past few years, people who have difficulties in self-expression in face-to-face interactions, have been using the cyberspace as a platform to express themselves. There are a number online forums or groups in which people discuss their personal issues and difficulties. They share their experiences in such forums, giving them ample opportunities for self-expression.
In this regard, blogging has become a very useful medium. Especially, a lot of introverts, and shy and lonely individuals write blogs, in which they either share their personal experiences or write on topics they find to be interesting, something they are unable to do so during face-to-face interactions.
Social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram have also become very helpful for self-expression. Simple activities like tweeting ones opinions, writing a status, or sharing pictures with creative captions are all aspects of self-expression. They in some way represent the identity and personality of the individual. This works very well for individuals like introverts and those experiencing shyness and loneliness, who are unable to express themselves properly in face-to-face interactions.
Self-expression is a highly significant aspect of behavior. It is associated with positive mental health and self-concept development. Due to its specific features like social or perceived anonymity, reduced public sense of self-awareness, heightened private sense of self-awareness, and the aspect of deindividuation, the cyberspace has become a very useful medium for self-expression. The cyberspace can, thus, be used as a platform to help people like introverts, and shy and lonely individuals, who have difficulties in self-expression in face-to-face interactions.

Saif Farooqi

A PhD in Psychology (from the University of Delhi). I have been blogging about psychological issues for more than ten years. I am extremely passionate about teaching psychology. I'm a writer, podcaster, and TEDx speaker. I also conduct workshops and awareness programs in schools and colleges. Currently, I'm also working as an Assistant Professor at the Department of Psychology, Faculty of Social Sciences, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, India

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