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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A Playlist for New Beginnings: Songs for Moving On & Starting Over

A Playlist for New Beginnings: Songs for Moving On & Starting Over | Here are some of my favorite songs for saying goodbye to the past, embracing the future, and remembering that it’s okay to not have it all figured out yet.

This past weekend, I attended a concert featuring Mat Kearney, one of my all-time favorite singer/songwriters. As he strummed the first chords of his early single, “Nothing Left to Lose,” I was immediately taken back to the very first time I ever heard the song: 9th grade, on the school bus, in the dark of the early morning. The melody caught my attention as it played over the radio, and in typical 2006 fashion, I lamented over the fact that I didn’t know the name of the song or artist–and therefore wouldn’t be able to purchase the track on iTunes and download it to my brand new, hot pink iPod nano. (Will this be the “walk uphill both ways to school” story that I tell my future children?)

In that moment of reminiscence, I was truly awed by the power of music to so instantly and effortlessly transport us to a different time and place. Often, these times and places are from our past; for example, whenever I hear the Beach Boys’ hit “Barbara Ann,” I’m suddenly a little girl again in my old house on Heritage Street, and I’m dancing around the living room with my dad and younger sister as the tune plays on our stereo. And whenever I hear “Teenage Dream” by Katy Perry, I find myself a college freshman once more, cruising in the car with my girlfriends on a sunny August day as we pass by a fraternity house and hear the song blasting from their speakers.

But I think that music also has a way of carrying us into the future–whether by lifting us out of a dark place and encouraging us to press onward, by enabling us to grasp the bigger picture and deeper meaning of our current situation, or by simply reassuring us that we’re not the first person to ever feel this way. So last spring, when I could finally begin to discern the light at the end of the grad school tunnel, I started searching for songs that took me to the place where I wanted to be. Over time, what began as just two or three tracks gradually blossomed into a full-fledged playlist that I’m excited to share with all of you today. The songs that comprise my “New Beginnings” soundtrack speak to a variety of emotions and experiences associated with moving on, from waving a hearty goodbye to the past and embracing the future in all of its uncertainty, to hesitating in taking the first steps forward, to remembering that it’s okay to not have it all together yet.

So without further ado, happy listening! I hope that wherever you are in your life right now, these songs will bless you with a dose of positivity and encouragement. And if nothing else, some of these tunes are pretty darn catchy! (I dare you to sit still through “Goodbye,” “Movin’ on Up,” or “Welcome to Your Life.” Go on, try it.) Then, when your jam session is complete, comment below with your thoughts on the playlist and/or tell me about your favorite songs for moving onward and upward!

Spotify users: If you’re currently logged into your account, you can click on any track below and start listening right away. If you’re not logged in, clicking on the playlist below will prompt you to do so. 

Non-Spotify users: Clicking on the playlist below will prompt you to sign up for Spotify. If you’ve never tried it, it’s a pretty amazing digital music service that I use practically everyday, so I highly recommend it! (I’m not receiving any sort of compensation for this endorsement; I’m just a huge fan!) But if you prefer to get your tunes another way, I’ve also created a graphic displaying all of the track and artist names. Enjoy! 

A Playlist for New Beginnings | Songs for saying goodbye to the past, embracing the future, and remembering that it’s okay to not have it all figured out yet.

Managing Anxiety: 5 Strategies That Have Worked for Me

Managing Anxiety: 5 Strategies That Have Worked For Me | Strategies such as embracing the diagnosis and seeing a trusted therapist can help keep anxiety at bay.

This past January, I visited my doctor to discuss some disturbing symptoms I was experiencing, namely dizziness, chest pains, and a rapid heart rate at the most unexpected and inexplicable times (such as when I was driving, lying in bed, or sitting in church). I walked into her office terrified that at just 24 years old, I was already exhibiting signs of early-onset cardiovascular disease. I walked out with the knowledge that while my heart and blood vessels were functioning just fine, my brain was another story: I was experiencing Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) along with panic symptoms. (Later on I would learn that I demonstrated many symptoms of clinical depression as well.)

In the months since these discoveries, I have taken a number of steps in hopes of improving my mental (and subsequently physical) health. I still have a long way to go, and GAD may be something that I have to learn to cope with for the rest of my life. Nonetheless, I have found a number of strategies and lifestyle modifications to be helpful thus far, and today I’d like to share some of them with you.

Unfortunately, given the relatively high prevalence of anxiety disorders (including panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, phobias, and separation anxiety disorder), it seems quite likely that either you, dear reader, or someone you know and love suffers from one of these conditions. So while the following strategies may not be groundbreaking, I feel compelled to share, if for no other reason than to offer hope for the many others in similar situations. And although I am not a medical professional and am therefore in no position to diagnose or treat anyone else, I do have six years of public health education under my belt, so I intend to discuss the issues in an informed and responsible manner.

I have a total of 10 tips to share, but since I’m nothing if not verbose, I’ll keep this post at a manageable length by discussing only the first half. So without further ado, here are five strategies that have helped me manage my anxiety over the past seven months. And although I’m not focusing specifically on depression in this post, many of these same tactics have helped me tackle those symptoms as well.

  1. Embracing the diagnosis and admitting that I need help. Although the diagnostic labeling of mental health issues can be a controversial topic, for me, discovering that my experiences had a name was immensely helpful. It enabled me to research the disorder and better understand what was going on in my body and mind; it gave me an explanation for my irrational thoughts and actions other than “I’m ridiculous” or “I suck.” It provided me with the vocabulary I needed to communicate my situation to others and helped me to understand that I wasn’t alone in my struggles. And most of all, having a diagnosis forced me to finally acknowledge the gravity of my situation and motivated me to take action and reach out for help. I was no longer just “stressed about school”; I was truly miserable and functioning suboptimally in almost every area of my life, and I lacked the knowledge and resources to turn things around all by myself.
  2. Taking medication. I was initially a bit reluctant and ashamed to take the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) that my doctor prescribed. The list of potential side effects made my current symptoms seem like a cakewalk, and since I’ve always been an advocate of making holistic lifestyles changes rather than relying solely on pills, I felt like a hypocrite for taking meds right away without at least attempting therapy first. (Therapy came later; see item #3.) But my desperation drove me to start taking the medication anyway and I’m so glad that I did. My panic symptoms (dizziness, chest pains, and racing heartbeat) have completely disappeared, and I haven’t experienced any noticeable side effects. We eventually upped my daily dose a bit and I’m happy with where we’re at right now. Yay for normal serotonin levels!

  3. Seeing a therapist with whom I really connect. Once I finished the semester and my schedule was more accommodating, I started making the 1-hour commute to visit a therapist who came highly recommended by several people I know. Although I wasn’t expecting to find a perfect fit on the first try, after just one session with Nicole, I completely understood why these individuals had spoken so highly of her. She was warm, funny, and an incredible listener, able to weave the various threads of my experiences together into a coherent picture for me to gaze and reflect upon. I laughed, I cried, and I discussed things I hadn’t even realized were bothering me, and the whole time I felt completely comfortable and respected, even when she pointed out that some of my thoughts or actions might be irrational or counterproductive. I’ve continued seeing her all summer and can’t believe the difference. Whereas my medication has helped alleviate my physical panic symptoms, therapy has helped tackle the thought patterns that send me into a spiral of anxiety in the first place.

  4. Talking and writing openly about my experiences. Initially, I wanted to share what I was going through with as few people as possible–my parents, my boyfriend, and maybe one or two friends. I was still processing it all myself and didn’t know how to go about discussing it with others. So for a while, I waited, avoiding the topic whenever possible and speaking vaguely of “appointments” and “medication” whenever I couldn’t get around it. And that’s totally okay! Eventually, though, I felt that I was ready to share–that in a way, I needed to share. My public health education had taught me many things, one of which was that mental health issues are incredibly common and yet all too often not diagnosed, treated, or even discussed. I had always lamented this reality and wanted to do something about it; here was a glaring opportunity. So I started by writing, and then, with some trepidation, by sharing that writing. Hitting “publish” on my first blog post was both terrifying and thrilling; I was finally being completely open and honest about my mental health, but what would people think? Would friends and family suddenly find me burdensome and unstable? Would colleagues be less likely to trust me with major tasks at work for fear that I might not be able to handle the pressure? Would everyone roll his or her eyes and tell me to get over myself? I was fortunate to receive an overwhelmingly positive response, but I see now that even if I hadn’t had such a warm reception, sharing my experiences was the right move for me. On a personal level, writing and talking about anxiety, depression, fear, perfection, vulnerability, mindfulness, identity, and more have been incredibly therapeutic, and on a professional level, I like knowing that in some small way, I’m helping to fight a stigma that causes so many people to suffer in silence.

  5. Being patient with myself. In some regards, I’m a very patient person; however, when it comes to my own personal development, I often expect myself to have it together at all times, to be good at things on the first try, and to flawlessly and immediately adapt to whatever life throws my way. When I started realizing that I would never expect this level of perfection from a family member or friend, I knew that it was time to start being kinder and more patient with myself. I’m going through a lot of life transitions right now, with graduation, moving, and the search for my first full-time job. It’s okay that it’s taking me more than a day, a week, or even a month to wrap my brain around it all. I also can’t expect managing my anxiety to be a perfectly linear process; there will still be plenty of days when I find myself overthinking the smallest of things, worrying about the unlikeliest of scenarios, or feeling tense and panicked for no discernible reason. I’m aiming for large-scale progress, not day-to-day perfection.

So there you have it! In the next installment, I plan to focus more on health behaviors such as sleep, exercise, and caffeine intake. In the meantime, if you have any advice of your own for managing anxiety (whether or not you have a diagnosed disorder), please feel free to leave a comment and enlighten us!

Life Under Construction: Pursuing Authenticity Over Perfection

Life Under Construction: Pursuing Authenticity Over Perfection | We shouldn't wait until we have everything figured out to starting letting people into our lives.

The parking garage next door to my church is currently being bulldozed, so on my way to mass this morning, I walked by a fenced off pile of rubble with a sign reading DEMOLITION AREA: DO NOT ENTER. At first I thought nothing of it; Indiana roads have undergone so much construction over the past year that you routinely have to take a detour to get to your detour. People joke that the government is going to have to change the state flower to an orange construction cone. So at first glance, the sign seemed like nothing remarkable. But as I re-read the words, it hit me that the phrase DEMOLITION AREA: DO NOT ENTER captured, with uncanny accuracy, my general approach to life.

Even though I know that all of us are constantly growing and changing–we’re people “under construction,” if you will–for as long as I can remember, I’ve acted as though someday the work will be complete and then my life can really begin. In the meantime, though, I have to be careful not to let anyone witness the mess or trip over the rubble. Don’t stop by and visit until I’ve had time to clean my apartment from top to bottom! Don’t snap a photo or even look at me until I’ve had a chance to put on makeup and style my hair! Don’t ask for my opinion until I’ve done all my background research and composed an intelligent, nuanced response! And don’t get to know me until I’ve fixed all my brokenness and smoothed out all my rough edges, because right now my life is an occupational hazard, and one (or both) of us might get hurt if you get too close. It’s best for all of us if you just keep your distance.

Or so I thought. It turns out that (spoiler alert) this is an exhausting and unfulfilling way to live. Sure, maybe a few people will fall for the act and think you have everything together and possibly even admire you for your perceived ability to “do it all,” but in the end, the time, energy, and worry you spend in the process will hardly be worth the approval of a few acquaintances. And the people who fall for it will be acquaintances, because you can’t have any sort of close, meaningful relationship when you’re separated from the other person by orange cones and chain-link fences.

So I want to stop living this way. I no longer want DO NOT ENTER to be my life motto. I’m not sure of the best way to go about it, so I’d appreciate any ideas that you, dear reader, may have to offer. In the meantime, I’ll keep reminding myself of a totally obvious yet brilliant statement my therapist once made: “Just because you have a thought doesn’t mean that the thought is true.” So next time I’m tempted to push someone away until I feel like I have my act together or postpone an experience until I feel 110% prepared, I will try to assess the accuracy of my thought processes rather than automatically throwing up the DEMOLITION AREA sign. For example, how likely is it that family members or friends dropping by on short notice will actually make harsh judgements regarding the tidiness of my apartment? Not very. Instead, it is far more likely that my loved ones won’t even notice the dusty blinds or full trash can, or that they will notice but not think any less of me for it. And most importantly, their reaction, whether positive, negative, or neutral, will have absolutely no bearing on my worthiness as a human being. BOOM. Paige: 1, irrational thoughts: 0.

So tell me, friends: What are your suggestions for living life fully, even when you’re “under construction”?

 

What Anxiety Feels Like (And Why I’m Done Letting It Stop Me)

What Anxiety Feels Like (And Why I'm Done Letting It Stop Me) | Anxiety is uncomfortable, but we can't let it keep us from telling our stories.

Today was an anxiety day.

My therapist, Nicole, would probably prompt me to describe my anxiety in terms of where I’m feeling it in my body, what it looks like, etc. She’d encourage me to “lean in” to the discomfort rather than turning and running away, to “talk” to the feeling and ask what it needs from me.

Although I always feel a bit silly playing this game, it’s surprisingly helpful. So I would respond that the anxiety is in my stomach–right alongside fear and sadness and all of my negative emotions, apparently. But unlike the sadness and the fear, which tend to take the form of big, bulky shapes in dark, foreboding colors (like slate gray or deep purple), the anxiety is a fluttery, feathery thing in pale blue. It’s like crepe paper blowing in the wind, except far less festive. The more I think about it and “lean in,” the more rapid the fluttering becomes, and the uneasiness in my stomach escalates from a simmer to a rapid boil. And I have no clue what it needs from me because I’m not even sure exactly what’s causing it.

Well, that’s not totally true. I could probably venture an educated guess: I just returned from a 2-week vacation only to be slammed with stress and conflict at work (doubly awful on a jet-lagging brain); I miss my long-distance boyfriend like crazy and don’t know when I’ll see him next; and, oh yeah, I just graduated with my master’s degree last month and have no idea what I’m doing with my life from now on. And quite honestly, I’m so tired and worn down from earning said degree that I’m not even feeling all that motivated to figure it out. Rather than job searching or soul searching, I’d rather search for the nearest pillow and take a nap.

So yeah, that’s probably some of why today was an anxiety day.

And although I keep feeling the urge to write about it all, I also keep hesitating to do so. Sometimes I push aside the urge to write in favor of doing “real” work, something that will make me feel productive when I cross it off my to-do list. Other times I push aside the urge because I don’t have the energy to put my thoughts into words, or at least words that sound good, and being the perfectionist that I am, good isn’t good enough. And sometimes I push aside the urge in favor of doing other things for other people and convincing myself that “me time” is overrated and narcissistic anyway.

But I want to stop making excuses. I want to stop worrying about writing something elegant and start focusing on writing something real. I want to stop acting like I’m superhuman and don’t need breaks and start allowing myself to be the vulnerable, limited, imperfect human being that I actually am. What I write may not always be pretty or make sense or result in a publishable post. But I’m tired of letting anxiety stop me, of letting it rob me of my happiness, my motivation, my creativity, and my joie de vivre. I’m tired of letting anxiety win. Quite frankly, I’m just tired.

So listen up, you fluttery, feathery, pale blue thing that has taken up residence in the pit of my stomach: Don’t get too comfortable. I’m telling my story, and you can’t stop me.