When I was a kid, I remember my Mom using the phrase “keeping up with the Joneses,” mostly when she was making a sarcastic remark about materialism. We lived out in the country, where our closest neighbors were a decent distance away, secluded in our own little nest of comfort and nature. We didn’t see the Joneses put in a pool and I didn’t have to watch when daughter Jones got a new car for her 16th birthday. We were, in large part, blissfully unaware of what others were doing or what others had. Sure, I had the occasional pang of jealousy when I went to a friend’s house and saw her brand new computer or went to school and saw her brand new wardrobe. But then I would return home, forget about it, and be content playing with the toys I had in the clothes I was wearing.
A few nights ago, I was having a conversation with a high school friend who I hadn’t seen in a very long time. We were talking about marriage, houses, kids, and careers, and he mentioned how he and his wife were looking for a house and feeling somewhat bad about themselves because of all the pictures they’d seen on Facebook of our peers buying beautiful properties. And then he said something along the lines of, “it used to be that people only had to compare themselves to each other every 10 years, at class reunions, now it’s every day. I wonder what all this social comparison is doing.”
We have apps like Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter where, on a regular basis, we can check in on others’ lives. We have constant updates on news, resources to not only tell us what is going on here in our own country, but also what people across the world are doing. We get to compare ourselves to that Yale graduate who just sold his multi-billion dollar company, the person we went to college with who just published a book, and the neighbor down the street who just had a beautiful baby who is always spit-up free and dressed adorably. Then come all the lists about the “things we should know/have done” by the time we’re X years old. We are constantly bombarded by what others are and what we are not. And in some attempt to validate the fact that we’re all feeling quite bad about ourselves, the counter lists of “ways you are successful even if you don’t feel like” it are rounding the internet. No wonder these are getting so popular, we’re begging for someone to please, please, please validate us and our life choices.
I often tell my clients, when they bring up social media comparison, that they are only seeing the highlight reel of everyone else. That they have no idea what’s going on behind the scenes. And they all agree that yes, this is true. But it doesn’t provide comfort. So I started to wonder, why not?
When I look at a magazine, say Maxim or Women’s Health, there are images of gorgeous, toned, flawless women gracing the cover, the articles, even the advertisements. Of course these women have make-up artists, personal trainers, perfect lighting, a professional photographer, and Photoshop to top it all off. But here’s the thing, despite the fact that I KNOW these are unrealistic and impossible standards of beauty, that these aren’t even really real photos anymore, I can’t help but get that twinge of insecurity and jealousy. Somewhere deep inside my brain lives the question “but what if I could?” or the even more damaging, “but I want that anyway.” Studies upon studies have shown that even though little girls know these images are Photoshopped, they still have a negative impact on their self-esteem. Just because we grow up and mature doesn’t mean that we somehow become immune to all this. Perfection is alluring and my brain wants it anyway, even if I know it’s impossible.
At least when it comes to magazines, despite the comparison, I can say “well that is a celebrity and I’m a real person.” But with social media accounts, it’s closer to home. The person I’m comparing myself to is someone I know, someone I sat next to in class, someone I graduated with and attended their wedding. Social media comparison may be more damaging because we can identify with the people we’re comparing ourselves to, and yet, we’re falling short of what they’re accomplishing.
So what’s the solution? I’m not going to suggest that people just get off social media, because I think that’s an unrealistic answer. And I can say, “just continue to tell yourself that you don’t know what’s going on behind that picture” but that doesn’t help either. So here is my conclusion: start paying more attention to your own life. We have such a strong fear of missing out that we’re actually missing our own lives. We’re caught up in what others have, what others are doing, what we could have or could be doing. We walk down the street, staring down at our phones, looking at the pictures someone just posted of a beautiful sunset in Hawaii and think “man, I really wish I was in Hawaii.” And all the while, we’re failing to notice that the sun is setting right in front of us and if we’d just look up, we’d see it. I love the phrase “the grass is greener where you water it.” So start watering your own grass and stop giving so much to your neighbor’s yard.
And if you find that you’re afraid to look up because you don’t want to face your dissatisfaction with your own life, well then you have a choice: you can melt into the online world of “what could be” or you can look up, make a change, and live a life you want. Now that will give you something to post on Facebook.