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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