How does social media make us feel worse about ourselves?
A couple of weeks ago – it was a gorgeous, sunny Saturday – I found myself at IKEA on the last day of a sale. The frantic disorientation of the showroom and the dystopian vibe of the warehouse left me in a somewhat altered state of consciousness. Still, I was feeling the satisfaction that accompanies conquering a dreaded task. But the checkout queue was long, so I decided to kill time…by checking Instagram. Seventeen seconds later, and I was sucked into a vortex of kayaking selfies and beach hair. And a helpful quote: Make today amazing! Whereas moments before I had felt accomplished, I now felt deflated.
Recently, a(nother) study on the emotional impact of social media declared that social media – particularly the popular photo feed platform Instagram – makes us feel more depressed and anxious. You could have heard a pin drop when exactly nobody’s jaw dropped to the ground.
On a good day, we can take in other people’s happiness and accomplishments with equanimity and feel happy for them. However, if we are feeling disgruntled, grieving, or otherwise hamstrung by our circumstances, seeing the filtered lives of others can feel, as one recently divorced client described to me, “like being kicked in the stomach repeatedly.”
‘Should-ing’ leads to anxiety
I know that these are not terribly original thoughts. But here’s why this is such a thing for me. As a therapist, I spend my days having conversations with people about their struggles, their relationship challenges, and their complicated emotions. Want to know the word that comes up more than practically anything else? Should (also see: shouldn’t).
Every day, I meet with clients who tell me that they “should be doing better.” They are frustrated with themselves for not being more impressive in their careers, social lives, and pursuits. They long to behave better as a partner or parent. All of this can cause anxiety – Am I doing enough? Should I do more? It can also create dissatisfaction – my [partner/kids/job/exercise regime] should be better. If we aren’t able to put this into perspective and assess these questions more objectively, we can feel inadequate, and engage in serious self-criticism.
Social media isn’t the only thing to blame for this brand of shame, of course – it’s not even the main culprit. But when we are flailing – and who doesn’t, at times? – the apparently effortless displays of confidence and healthy relationships (and clean eating, to boot) gleaming through our screens can be discouraging, rather than inspiring.
Life is a package deal. Why pretend otherwise?
My informal focus group resoundingly acknowledged that while their personal lives are a mosaic of emotions, complicated relationships, good moments, aggravating moments, frustrations, joys, losses – their social media activity aggressively curates a #BestSelf that only represents a thin slice of who they are.
It’s not just the viewers, scrolling slack-jawed through their feeds, who suffer. When we edit out our humility and exclude any reference to our foibles, we reinforce to ourselves that our imperfections are not shareable and diminish our social capital.
I don’t take delight in the suffering of others, but I generally find people more interesting when they can reveal their own fallibility. But that’s only part of it: my main argument for authenticity online is not only for my own entertainment value, of course. There’s also this truth bomb: transparency actually makes us feel better. It feels good to express something other than joy and perfection, in real life and on social media, because the validation and feedback we receive is connecting – far more so than is simple admiration.
One of my clients, when I mentioned I was writing this article, asked if I would share this anecdote (details adjusted for anonymity). She related how she had recently posted a gleeful looking family photo on her social media timeline from the top of a local mountain; they had just completed a gruelling hike. As someone who habitually puts a great deal of energy into maxing out each day and being that impressive mom, her timeline is full of photos such as these. The caption on this photo was not her usual deal, though. She read it to me: “Pictured: four smiling people. Not pictured: me being mom-zilla after the whining and bickering passed my threshold. Not proud of myself. Beautiful hike…but kind of tense.” She noted that comments she received as a result of her more honest tone were not only supportive, but reflective in a way that she didn’t anticipate. People shared their own mishaps. A conversation ensued about how pushing our kids sometimes backfires in our faces. More than one fist-bump emoji. Life is a package deal, people. We all get that!
You can be genuine on social media – without oversharing!
“But I hate reading whiny, ranting posts,” someone recently countered, pointedly. Fair enough! Me too. Vulnerability author and researcher Brené Brown makes an important distinction between ‘oversharing’ – that uncomfortable phenomenon in which one vigorously offloads their troubles in a way that leaves the recipients feeling depleted and captive – and vulnerability, a phenomenon in which we feel our struggles and emotions and choose not to shield it with armour, such as bravado and hiding. Obviously, with hundreds of online ‘friends,’ we probably don’t want to be an open book – and I wouldn’t advise it, anyway. But being more genuine can be a simple as toning down the positive rhetoric, and being more nuanced in how you present yourself. After all, how many times can you have a “best day ever!”?
Social media might be making us feel worse about our lives, but don’t blame the platforms. They’re designed for us to connect – how we choose to do so is up to us. The funny thing is, when you see your social media pals IRL (that’s *in real life* for you analog types), they are more human, less filtered and, ironically, more likable.
Here are a few ideas to get you started
At this point, you might think that I scorn social networking, but quite the opposite is true. I happen to love the conversations and hive mind of Facebook and the creativity of Instagram. For the most part, I enjoy how people engage. But I do struggle with the glorifiers. Even if you are #blessed, surely you must have have some moments when your optimism wanes. Why not share those, too?
Want to know where to begin? Dial down those hashtags. Post like you’re having a conversation, rather than addressing a crowd of admirers. Throw in some context to let us know that you’re flailing right along with the rest of us. And, please – no humblebrags! We can see right through them.
Can we still be share the things we are proud of on social media? Yes!! Post your beaming children and your natarajasana atop a rugged cliff. But here is my plea: don’t stop there. More and more, social media is where we go for conversation and community. Turning it into a “best of” highlight reel undermines the complex and sometimes challenging enterprise of being human (and it also makes social media boring).
Imagine if we all followed suit? If the internet was full of a bunch of humans, just being human?
Now, that’s something worth clicking the like button for!
If you liked this article, please share with others who you think might also find it interesting! And if you want to speak further with a counsellor, I’d love to hear from you. Connect with me, and we’ll continue the conversation.