The Social Media Comparison Trap (And How to Avoid It)

The Social Media Comparison Trap (And How to Avoid It) | A quick scroll through Facebook or Instagram can leave us feeling down on ourselves if we aren't careful. Here's what we should--and shouldn't--do to remind ourselves that no one's life is as perfect as it looks online.

Have you ever taken a look through your own Facebook archives?

Being the nostalgia junkie that I am, I actually love revisiting old posts and pics every once in awhile. And unlike with other social media platforms, I’ve been on Facebook for long enough now that my account history actually encompasses a significant portion of my life. Recently, as I was taking one of these virtual strolls down memory lane, I noticed something interesting that I hadn’t before.

I realized that, in addition to questionable fashion choices circa 2008 (plaid Bermuda shorts, anyone?), my early Facebook profile was characterized by content that is far less filtered than the stuff I post today. My status updates were more frequent and mundane, my “about me” page included dozens of goofy quotes from family members and friends that made sense only to me, and my photos were far less, er, complimentary. (Heck, my very first profile pic featured my younger sister and me throwing up peace signs and making duck faces before it was cool. Luckily the plaid Bermudas were cropped out of this particular gem.) The more I thought about it, the more I realized that most of my friends’ profiles were once quite similar. In those early days of Facebook, we were all just learning what it meant to share our lives with others online, and share–and overshare–we did. We had yet to fully realized our capability to curate content in order to project a certain image of ourselves to the world; instead, our Facebook walls (precursors to today’s Facebook timelines) were filled with the things we liked, found entertaining, or simply wanted to remember someday, regardless of whether our resulting profile made us look cool or interesting or beautiful or smart.

Before I continue, I want to clarify that I’m not hoping to portray us all as perfectly authentic then (we weren’t) or incredibly shallow now (we aren’t), nor am I implying that all of these changes have been unfavorable. Let’s be real, I’m grateful that true “status updates” (you know, the kind where we provide a play-by-play of every waking minute of our lives) have become largely passé, and I don’t think that the world is any worse for its lack of Facebook albums consisting entirely of unflattering Paige selfies. (I could be wrong, though.) However, I do believe that social media can strongly influence how we perceive ourselves and the world around us, and I know that personally, the more others’ online lives look like an unending stream of grand accomplishments, fun outings, and perfect hair days, the more I struggle with comparisons and self-doubt.

It’s tricky, though, because I do want to know when my loved ones do awesome things so I can celebrate and congratulate. And I do like seeing beautiful images to uplift and inspire me in today’s often dark and ugly world. But because it’s so easy to convince myself that whatever I’m seeing is the entire story, frequent exposure to a constant highlight reel leaves me with a skewed sense of reality. After all, that Insta-worthy photo of a friend’s pastry and latte at a chic cafe rarely comes with a disclaimer that this is not his or her everyday routine. Those updates from a neighbor’s tropical getaway vacation don’t detail the stress and financial sacrifice that went into planning the trip or the arguments that occurred during the car or plane ride there. Those fairytale wedding photos make it easy to overlook the months or years of hard work, compromise, and tears that the couple has invested in the relationship–and will have to continue investing until death do them part. The caption on that flawless selfie doesn’t indicate how many attempts or filters went into achieving the shot or remind us that even Hottie McHotterson has days when his or her look isn’t #onfleek.

When we juxtapose our own messy stories to only the neat and tidy chapters of others’ lives, it’s no surprise that we often arrive at the conclusion that we’re doing something wrong or that we’ve failed in some way. So I think it’s important to make a conscious effort to balance out the picture of perfection we so often see projected online, especially if we find ourselves tempted to play this comparison game. But how?

First, a how not: The answer isn’t that we should start sharing our every unfiltered thought and experience with the online world. Many of us have hundreds of friends and followers on social media, and there are struggles and secrets that should be entrusted with only our inner circles. I’ve also seen enough vicious comment sections to believe that some version of “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all” can and should be practiced more often online. (We should certainly speak the truth and stand up for our beliefs, but if we can’t do it respectfully, we need to cool off a bit until we can. You know, check yo’self before you wreck yo’self.)

Instead, I think that the best approach is rather simple: decreasing the amount of time we spend on social media and increasing the amount of time we spend connecting with others in real life, preferably in person. And I’m talking truly connecting here– not just a quick “Hi, how are you?” but rather a genuine conversation about real issues and stories in all their shades of gray. This is easier said than done, of course; actually finding time to spend with people is a challenge in today’s busy world, while Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are almost always just a click or tap away. But making these shifts has helped me immensely in remembering that I’m not alone in my imperfection or even in the way that social media can sometimes make me feel. And whereas I’ve often regretted the minutes and hours of mindless newsfeed scrolling, I wouldn’t trade a single heart-to-heart with a family member, close friend, or mentor for the world. 

Do you ever find yourself comparing your life to the lives of others on social media? What strategies help you to maintain perspective?

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Job Searching & Self-Discovery, Part II: Identifying the Strengths & Skills You Have to Offer

Job Searching & Self-Discovery, Part II: Identifying the Strengths & Skills You Have to Offer | Applying for jobs can be a frustrating and discouraging process, but it can also present a wonderful opportunity for reflection and self-discovery. Here's the strategy I used to clarify the skills and strengths I have to offer an employer.

In my last post, I discussed how lost I had been feeling in my post-grad job hunt until I took a step back from the applications and did a bit of soul searching. I found two strategies to be especially helpful during my little period of Eat, Pray, Résumé, the first of which was exploring my career goals in light of the kinds of problems and questions that get me really fired up–and not in terms of what I want to “be” someday.

Once I identified the issues I’m passionate about, I had to figure out what, exactly, I could offer in terms of addressing them. This is where strategy #2 came in. Are you ready?

Drumroll please…

I made a spreadsheet!

MS Excel lovers, can I get an amen?! Data haterz, stay with me; I promise that the core of this post isn’t really about spreadsheets at all.

Rather, the spreadsheet was a tool–a means of capturing an eagle’s eye view of my life and experiences so far. I went through dozens of old folders and files, reviewed past papers and projects and performance evaluations, and compiled a massive list of everything about me that could be relevant to a career, from my degrees and coursework to jobs and extracurricular activities to hobbies and personal endeavors. It was a big undertaking, to say the least, but so worth it. Because you know what happened?

I began to discern patterns.

I started to notice the types of projects at which I excel and the topics toward which I naturally gravitate–as well as the tasks that are more of a struggle and the subject areas that are more of a drag for me. I started to see which soft skills are truly my strengths and which ones…need some more work. And perhaps most importantly, I started to challenge notions I had previously held about myself.

For example, I’ve always considered myself to be a major rule-follower. And in many cases, I am–I dig structure and order and general societal harmony, yo. But reexamining my past in this systematic manner revealed something that really shocked me: when it comes to the work I do, I love pushing limits and finding new and imaginative (and sometimes totally goofy or weird) ways of doing things. Whether I’m in the kitchen doctoring up a new recipe or in the classroom using a goofy skit to convey information to my peers, I rarely just look at the instructions I’m given and say, yep, that’ll do. If you would have asked me, prior to compiling the Spreadsheet of Clarity, whether I viewed myself as innovative, I probably would have said no. But now? I would respond with an emphatic yes–and be able to provide concrete evidence to support my answer.

As another example, reviewing my past work reminded me of the totally obvious–I love to write. I can distinctly recall being seven or eight years old and holing up in a corner, drafting the Next Great American Novel with my super cool purple sparkly gel pen (#ninetiesbabe) while the rest of the kids did normal kid stuff. I remember filling notebook after notebook with poetry and journal entries in my preteen years and throwing myself into my creative writing class in high school. The projects I was most proud of in college were typically reports and papers, and now, here I am, blogging for funzies. Before, if you would have asked me if I viewed myself as a writer, I would have said no–I didn’t major in English or journalism, and I’ve never been paid for my work. But now? Yeah, I think I may be a writer.

Tying all of this back in with Operation Job Search, the spreadsheet-making process helped to clarify what I have to offer an employer as well as what I’m looking for in a job.  I then revisited what I had discovered when I asked myself which problems most intrigue me, and I saw an important connection. I’m fascinated  with the fact that we live in society that is both saturated with health information and plagued with numerous health problems, and I want a career with plenty of opportunity for creativity, innovation, and writing. I don’t have everything figured out, of course, but it’s becoming more and more clear that a job in health communications would be a great fit for me. So this is where I’ve focused my job search since then, and it feels so much more “right” than when I was applying to a random assortment of positions across the public health field.

So if you’re ever lost in the career exploration process like I was, or if you even just need a reminder of who you really are–I highly encourage you to do what I did. Even if you don’t make a list or spreadsheet, and even if you don’t have a lot of extra time on your hands, take just an hour or so to reexamine what you’ve done. Look for patterns. Challenge previously held notions about what you can and can’t do. What do you find?

Job Searching & Self-Discovery, Part I: The Best Question for Clarifying Your Career Goals

Job Searching & Self-Discovery, Part I: The Best Question for Clarifying Your Career Goals | Applying for jobs can be a frustrating and discouraging process, but it can also present a wonderful opportunity for reflection and self-discovery. Here's the best question I asked myself in order to clarify my life and career goals.

I’m currently looking for my first full-time job out of graduate school, and I’m beginning to understand what people mean when they talk about the difference between the “academic bubble” and the “real world.”

In school, you’re given a syllabus that clearly outlines what is expected of you. In most cases, if you adhere to the guidelines, submit your work on time, and generally try your best, your efforts will be rewarded. And if your work isn’t quite up to par, you can easily request feedback on what you need to do to improve. In the job search arena, on the other hand, you can follow every tip and trick out there for formatting your resume, you can pour your heart and soul into your cover letter, and you can spiff up your LinkedIn profile until you’ve reached “all-star” status–and you can still be met with total radio silence.

Bubble = popped.

Yet despite its many discouraging aspects, the job application process can also present a wonderful opportunity for self-discovery. I know that personally, it has prompted me to explore some of my greatest fears about the future and clarify many of my life and career aspirations.

About two months ago, a series of conversations with my therapist revealed how terrified I was of getting stuck in a job that I’m not passionate about, that offers little room for growth and creativity, that constantly drains my time and energy and compels me to live for nights, weekends, and those few precious vacation days each year. The reasons underlying these fears were numerous and complex, but a huge factor was that I simply didn’t know what I wanted to do, and it’s pretty hard to find something if you don’t know what you’re looking for. I love my field (public health), but it’s so broad and interdisciplinary that the career possibilities are almost endless. That’s awesome, of course, but also seriously overwhelming.

Once I realized this need for greater clarity, I took a break from the job apps and focused instead on research and exploration. After many hours of reading, listening to podcasts, journaling, conversing with trusted mentors, and taking a hard look at what I really have to offer the world based on my knowledge, skills, and experiences, I have arrived at a much clearer picture of what I want my career–and life–to look like. Within my broad field, I have discovered several niches that I believe make a truly good fit, and armed with this knowledge, I have begun applying for jobs once more.

Because the purpose of this blog is to detail a journey toward living a more vibrant and authentic life, and because I know that a lot of other students and recent grads are facing similar struggles, I’d like to share two key strategies that have helped me achieve greater clarity in my career goals.

Today I’ll discuss the first one: Asking the right questions.

It seems that one of the most common questions adults ask of young people is some variation of What do you want to be when you grow up? And I totally get it–it’s a reliable conversation starter that demonstrates interest in the individual’s personality and aspirations. I’ve posed this inquiry plenty of times myself, and always with good intentions. However, in attempting to discern my next steps, I have found this question to be unhelpful at best and downright counterproductive at worst.

We live in a world where lifelong careers with the same company or under the same job title are becoming increasingly rare, where many people study one subject in college and then end up working in an entirely different field, where technological advancements seem to create new positions–and render others totally obsolete–on a daily basis. Thus, asking young people what they’d like to “be” when they grow up encourages them to conceptualize their career path in a way that often doesn’t coincide with reality. There are exceptions, of course, but even relatively straightforward jobs can involve twists and turns–a teacher may decide to move into an administrative role, or a doctor may choose to start seeing fewer patients in favor of pursuing research. And personally, I recall hating this question as a teenager because it made me feel like, at the ripe old age of 15, I had to have the rest of my life figured out. Rather than knowing where I might want to start after college, I had to know what I wanted to “be” for the next 40+ years.

Instead, I have found it far more useful to reflect on what kinds of societal problems and questions most intrigue me. For example, I am fascinated by the fact that despite the plethora of health information available today, many people still do not adhere to basic recommendations for diet, physical activity, sleep, stress, alcohol and tobacco consumption, sun protection, food safety, and more. Identifying and addressing the reasons underlying this reality–including poor health literacy, a lack of access to necessary resources, competing priorities, or inaccurate perceptions of outcome severity and susceptibility–is literally the kind of thing that makes me want to get out of bed in the morning (public health nerd alert). It’s the place where my passions and the world’s needs collide, which has to mean something in terms of finding a career that’s flexible, fulfilling, and in demand.

In my next post, I’ll discuss the second key strategy I’ve used to clarify my career goals. Until then, I’d love to hear about your job search experiences (success stories and horror stories both welcome!) and thoughts on asking What do you want to be when you grow up?

Have Anxiety, Will Travel? Balancing Worry & Wanderlust

Have Anxiety, Will Travel? Balancing Worry & Wanderlust | For those of us who struggle with anxiety, the excitement of traveling is often met with equal amounts of worry and stress.

Traveling.

For someone who struggles with anxiety, few things are as bittersweet.

One one hand, I love experiencing the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of a place for the very first time or revisiting old haunts and feeling the warmth of nostalgia flood in. I enjoy adopting a totally different schedule–or no schedule at all!–for a time and engaging in the late-night life chats that inevitably unfold with my travel companions. I appreciate the reminder that my hometown is just one tiny speck on the map and my lifestyle is just one possible way. I even get a kick out of packing my suitcase with non-perishable snacks and three-ounce toiletry bottles and feeling like I have everything I need in life in just one bag (er, maybe more like two or three). Simply walking into an airport sends my heart racing with excitement and possibility as I imagine where other travelers might be headed and ponder, yet again, how insanely awesome it is that we can wake up in one city, state, or country and fall asleep that night in another.

But–and there’s always a “but” when it comes to anxiety–the very elements of traveling that contribute to its novelty, excitement, and ability to impart perspective can also trigger huge amounts of worry and stress. The mere thought of plunging into unfamiliar and uncertain situations that are largely out of my control often tempts me to call the whole thing off, to generate a flimsy excuse as to why I can no longer go, and to retreat to the safety and comfort of my home, where adventure may not await but where at least I know what to expect.

As I’ve discussed in my recent 2-part series on strategies for managing anxiety, I’ve come a long way since this past January when I was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Things like getting enough sleep, seeing a therapist, and practicing yoga have helped immensely in enabling me to feel healthy, balanced, and like my true, upbeat, goofy, passionate self again. But certain situations, especially those involving any type of travel, seem like an open invitation for those old, irrational thoughts to creep back in–a reality with which I was confronted this past weekend when I went to visit my younger sister just a few hours away.

Typically, I wouldn’t know spontaneity if it knocked on my door and delivered a pizza, so I was quite proud of myself for accepting her last-minute invite without hesitation. I was also truly excited to spend time with her and knew that it would be a low-key trip: the drive was easy, I would be staying for only one night, and I was visiting my sister, for Pete’s sake, so I should be able to just relax and be myself. As you can imagine, then, I was completely blindsided by the uneasiness I felt at various points before, during, and even after the trip. (Yes, after!) Don’t get me wrong, I still managed to have a great time overall, and I don’t regret the visit one single bit. But I was certainly reminded of how much stepping outside of my normal routine can shake me up, how much I obsess about and overanalyze things that should be fun and carefree, and how lonely it is to feel anxious while everyone else appears to be relaxed and enjoying themselves.

I plan to write more on the topic of travel anxiety, since it’s an obstacle I am truly committed to overcoming and would love to help others tackle as well. I took several longer trips this summer (including a two-week stay in Europe), so I have many thoughts on the matter!  I want to make the posts as relevant and useful as possible, so I invite you to comment below (or drop me a line at turningthepaigeblog@gmail.com) and let me know which aspects of travel anxiety you’d like to hear more about!