The Dangerous Ways We Compare Ourselves on Social Media and How To Stop

What lies behind you and what lies in front of you, pales in comparison to what lies inside of you. ~ Emerson Click To Tweet

2016 marked a year of big life events, according to my Facebook feed. Not a single day—and I do mean not one—went by without one of my friends or acquaintances either getting engaged, getting pregnant, getting married or having a child.

Now, it didn’t matter that I’m not in any way ready for these things to happen to me—regardless of this, the feeling of missing out and somehow ‘failing at life’ became more and more prominent as the months went by.

I looked around at my tiny apartment and thought about how, for the first time in my life, I was not in school and not working towards anything in the near future. Thoughts of loneliness and all my failed relationships began to feel overwhelming, and the suffocating pressure of student loans felt tighter and heavier than ever before.

Comparing myself to others is nothing new, and I, like many, have struggled with the ups and downs of self-confidence since elementary school. But since social media gained considerable momentum midway through my high school days, the comparing game has sped up as well.

Why Do We Do It?

Obviously, we don’t see all the bad that is happening in other people’s lives, just the good: the handstands on mountains. . . the drinks with girlfriends. . . the careful feng shui-esque snaps of eating clean. In our day and age we have the unique opportunity of editing our lives for social consumption.

For instance, your morning begins with a call from the phone company asking about your missed payment, and you and a family member aren’t speaking. . . but it’s a sunny day so you take a selfie with a bright smile on and suddenly, all at once, the Instagram, Facebook and Twitter spheres all think that your day is going wonderfully.

When we break it down to simple low-key examples like this, it might appear obvious that every single person is most likely hiding the unsavoury parts of their lives from social media. Of course they are, just as you are. Who’s going to share the little negative things that happen to them? People want to represent their lives in a positive and optimistic light, resulting in a social media feed that has often been termed a ‘highlight reel’.

The problem arises when we forget that we are in fact viewing everyone else’s highlight reel and begin thinking that these are accurate representations of the lives they live and comparing them to our real lives.

How Is It Affecting Our Worldview And Health?

Depression, anxiety and obsessive behavior—common outcomes of the comparing game—can be heightened by persistent involvement with social media. Psychology Today says that when we envy another person to the point where we wish to have what they have, we are not coveting everything about that person, but rather only the idealized elements of that individual. Social media, providing us with a perfectly manicured version of each person, makes it a perfect vehicle for this type of dysfunctional aggrandizement. 

Just as often happens once the courtship phase of a relationship is over, there comes a point when the mask must come off. In actuality, the person you are idealizing cannot ultimately live up to the perception you have of them– nor should they have to. Yet this type of outcome can be disheartening, to put it mildly.

When someone we greatly admire and look up to exhibit behaviors that go against our grandiose perception of them, it is shocking. If we are in the habit of constantly taking the ‘social media image’ of our friends as reality, a distance between the real and the fake emerges which can not only disrupt our relationships with these people in real life, but also our own sense of reality.

Finding A Solution and Using Social Media Mindfully

According to the Buddha, there are four conditions of suffering in life: birth, aging, illness and death. No matter what, each of us must, and will, go through every one of these things; your friend who always places in triathlons and whose boyfriend proposed to her in a rowboat on her favorite childhood lake; your coworker who got a full ride to the country’s best university; that acquaintance whose travel photos with his girlfriend have spanned what seems like the entire globe.

Behind all of their amazing successes on social media lie real humans, with real human lives and stories, just like you and I. Each of them will be touched in some way by the four conditions of suffering. It is important to keep this in mind, and to bring this knowledge into play when using social media. No matter what we’re looking at, we’re all human.

Carefully Navigate and Control Consumption

A good place to start is to become aware of the extent that social media has been negatively affecting you. Watch yourself and your emotional reactions as you use different networks and look at people’s feeds– don’t just BE your reaction, but be aware OF it. This is essential.

If you are prone to actual bouts of depression and anger, it may be useful to shut down your Facebook for a while, work on yourself and focus on pursuing in-person social interactions with friends, so that you can be involved in their real world.

Be mindful of both your weaknesses and the weaknesses of those you know; as mentioned above, a familiarity with the reality of life’s negative affects on not only yourself but every single person around you will lessen your tendency to compare yourself to others. Just because these things aren’t discussed doesn’t mean they aren’t happening. They are. 

Most social media sites allow you to freeze your account when you feel like you need a break, so deleting it completely is not necessary. When you feel like you are ready to return, do so, but be aware of how you are responding to the constant flow of information. Unsubscribe from certain feeds if you find yourself comparing too much again.

Redirect Your Comparing Game

Look back at how you were in another time, and ask yourself how you have improved since then.  Are you doing things differently or the same? How are your relationships? Where are you now that you wished you had been in years past? What have you accomplished that you only imagined accomplishing before? These questions will both help to ground you and bring your achievements to the surface.

Rather than being narcissistic, this introspection is reflective and affirming. You are a result of yesterday’s decisions, and you are a product of your own timeline.