Social comparison theory is not exactly a cutting-edge research concept. In 1954, social psychologist Leon Festinger published his seminal paper on the ways in which people evaluate their own abilities and success. His argument was that we can only really rate our own position in life by comparing it to those of others within our communities—where we fit in the pecking order—which means the boundaries of those communities really matter. Interestingly, the more similar someone appears to be to us, the more we appraise ourselves in relation to them.
In times of yore, aka when we lived offline, there were two ways that social comparison could work: upward and downward. When we saw others we judged to be in a worse position than ourselves, it would often lead to an improvement in self-appraisal and esteem. However, when we saw people we deemed to be living superior lives to us, or having superior abilities and attributes, it had a tendency to create a sense of inadequacy and insecurity, and had an overall negative effect on our self-evaluation.
“It hurts to look, but we can’t look away”
When all we see is the very, very best side of the people in our communities online, curated especially to exclusively highlight their best attributes, is it any wonder that most of us feel that we are on the back foot in relation to pretty much everyone we know? And because many of the heroes of the social media environment are ‘just like us’, rather than celebrities whose otherworldly beauty or talent sets them on a different plane, we go in hard with the personal comparison. While writing my book, Why Social Media is Ruining Your Life, it was this incessant self-judgement, spanning career success, body image, relationships and motherhood which was at the root of much of the negative impact that social media is wreaking on contemporary mental health.
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It’s all too easy to fall into a Saturday night scroll-a-thon and to find yourself consuming images and information about other people’s lives which cast your own existence in a dimmer light. Why can’t I afford my first home? Why don’t I have a loving partner? Why can’t I get pregnant? Why don’t I have a thigh gap? And when viewing the mega influencers: how come I haven’t got 17 versions of the new Chloé bag? Let’s call it a holistic sense of life dissatisfaction which is providing the breeding ground for the mental health crisis. Whether it’s feelings of depression generated by perceived inadequacy or anxiety around missing out on goals and achievements, social media has everything you need to enter into a spiral of negative self-talk. And we know that the lower you feel and the more vulnerable you are to those messages, the worse the choices you make for yourself—thus the seemingly masochistic nature of social media addiction. It hurts to look, but we can’t look away.
“Social media is like nutrition – you are what you eat… There’s a reason it’s called a feed”
There are two ways to start to turn this cycle around. One is behavioural and the other a question of perspective. Firstly, you have to remember that social media is much like nutrition – you are what you eat… There’s a reason it’s called a feed after all. If you gorge on fast food and forget about nourishing yourself, after a few days you will feel sluggish and potentially a bit down. If you just consume content which you know makes you feel worse about your life, it’s going to have the same result. However, if instead you pack your feed with accounts which inspire, uplift and educate you, your entire experience will change. It’s not easy—you have to actually invest time and energy in hunting out this kind of content. Start with following @lucysheridan (The Comparison Coach). Shift your expectations of beauty by following @effyourbeautystandards. Have a laugh at the whole social media game and subscribe to @celestebarber. And yes, unfollow anyone that you’re finding you’re particularly fixating on when it comes to your own position in life.
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-@rainbowchatman Repost: @alacodeblog Speak to yourself the same way you’d speak to a slice of pizza. You are flawless, you are stunning, and the world is a better place because you are in it. 🍕 If you’re reading this, I hope you get some delicious pizza soon, meet someone or are with someone awesome, or get to grab pizza with someone awesome. 🍕 —————————————— 📸: @theroadtohannah #effyourbeautystandards
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“I have posted gorgeous pictures while, behind the scenes, my life has been falling apart”
When it comes to the shift in perspective, it’s really important to try and keep a level head. In the past I have posted gorgeous, aspirational pictures to social media while behind the scenes my life has been falling apart. I’ve smiled on the same days when I’ve been in hysterical tears. I’ve looked glossy and successful when my husband had just left me or I’d been made redundant. What you see is not always, or even often, what you get. The images and messages you consume on social media are highly edited, curated and not representative of a full, lived life.
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My images aren’t photoshopped, but when I post a fashion picture, I will have chosen from around 100 frames, meaning you get an insight into 1/100 pictures taken over 15 minutes of my day—not even 1% of my actual life. It’s not ‘fake’ but it’s certainly nothing to judge yourself by. Often, I’ll have spent the rest of the day picking up broccoli sprouts from the floor (I have a 14 month old), folding 712 pieces of clothing, having a Whatsapp row with my brother, finding out an editor didn’t like something I’ve written, not fitting into fashion samples that have been sent for a shoot the next day. I don’t share all of this every day, because it really isn’t that interesting for anyone that isn’t me (and actually I’m not interested in most of it). But that doesn’t mean that I’m not going through the backbreaking mundanity of real life too.
“What you see is not always, or even often, what you get”
The vast majority of people will have relationships crises, worries about their parents, concerns about their own health, bills to pay and a litany of other universal experiences to go through day in and day out. If my book and career have taught me anything it’s that you are NOT alone. One million Instagram followers or a perfect Victoria’s Secret physique do not protect you from life’s tragedies. I’ve seen it from the inside and this idea that there’s this ‘perfect’ life which we judge ourselves negatively against is one thing that is pure fiction.
This article originally appeared on Harper’s Bazaar UK.