I had that “I’m so out of touch these days” feeling recently when I learned that “tbh” in Instagram context didn’t actually mean what I thought it did. Pre-social media, when one began a statement with “to be honest,” it generally meant that a frank, perhaps uncomfortable, comment was about to follow. But in the past few years, young people have adopted tbh for a different purpose. It has become a means to give or solicit compliments among friends.
Here is an example: someone might post pictures on Instagram, saying, “Like my pictures for a tbh comment.” Then for each “like” received, the poster writes something akin to “tbh you’re pretty” to each person who comments. It operates as a type of Instagram currency, where you can trade a tbh for likes on your photos. And now tbh has become even more complex. Some people use it with a high degree of sarcasm in response to the blatant self-promotion of tbh currency; others use it to say genuinely kind things; and still others, like myself, are in the tbh dark ages, using it as a precursor to frank statements that carry the risk of not being well received.
This seems to be an ironic twist for a phrase that has the word “honest” in it. Why play all these games—can’t we just be honest with one another? But then, perhaps the pursuit of honesty has always had an elusive, complicated nature to it. It is really hard to actually be honest, especially with ourselves.
When I consider the interactions that define our day-to-day realities and relationships, it is not surprising that deep and honest self-reflection presents such a challenge. In the context of our families, friendships, places of work, neighborhoods, and places of worship, we have duties to maintain, peace to keep, burdens to carry, and people to care for. Our uncertainties, struggles, and fears can feel like mere obstacles to fulfilling the very real responsibilities we must uphold.
It is much easier to fixate
on what’s outside of us
than to turn our focus inward.
Additionally, our image-driven, brand-centered, and identity-oriented culture often leaves little room for honesty about our weaknesses and fears. Just as a business must uphold its “brand promise” to its consumers, there is a cultural message, especially in this Instagram age, that each of us must pinpoint and maintain our own personal brand at all costs. This view rejects honest reflections about the aspects of ourselves that don’t match up with our self-conceived personal brand.
From what I can see, the cards are generally stacked against honest self-reflection. It is much easier to fixate on what’s outside of us than it is to turn our focus inward.
I have found it very difficult to make myself my own subject of inquiry. What am I actually feeling? What are my motivations? What mistakes did I make today? Whom did I hurt? What am I afraid of? What is inspiring me? While straightforward and intentionally not analytical, these questions sometimes leave me uncertain and unclear about what is actually happening within. There are times I don’t have words for what I am feeling, and times I am unwilling to admit I made a mistake.
But I have found this practice of self-questioning to be well worth the effort and practice. Asking these questions helps to keep me connected and present in the moment, increases awareness of my own gifts and blind spots, and also opens greater understanding of the perspectives of others. It’s as if being honest with myself opens a window to seeing God’s truth all around me. I catch glimpses of God’s peace, of Christ in all creation, and of the image of God in people everywhere.
When I am honest with myself, I can’t hide from my fears, and I can’t manage, manipulate, or self-protect my own identity. Confronted with the truth, I am ultimately left with one option: full reliance on the love and grace of God alone.
Can I be honest? I actually don’t know. But I am compelled to keep trying.