Comparing Ourselves to Others' Social Media Personae Could Be Bad For Our Mental Health

Kathryn Dillon

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My weeks in quarantine have generally been a surreal mix of spectacular productivity surges and waves of guilt that I’m not getting more accomplished with the time I’m suddenly not spending in gridlock on a highway. Today, I’m proud of myself for showering and starting a load of laundry. Big win. Huge.

I’m trying to force myself to get dressed each day, even if it doesn’t happen until noon. If I have a Zoom meeting, I might manage to brush my hair and apply a touch of makeup, a nod to normalcy I don’t exactly feel.

Meanwhile, social media makes us think everyone is baking sourdough, having lots of great sex, and creating perfect memories for their children. That's not the reality for most of us.

My Facebook newsfeed is full of smiling families spending quality time together on leisurely hikes, loaves of just-baked bread so beautiful you can practically smell them through the screen, jokes about how svelt we’re all going to be after the quarantine, and memes about the baby boom that’s sure to occur nine months from now, given that we’re stranded at home with our partners.

I mean, in the midst of a global pandemic, the likes of which few alive have seen before, we couldn’t possibly have anything to focus on aside from toning up our beach bods and getting hot and heavy with our baes, right?

Social media is a boon to many of us (at least those of us with Internet access) during a time when we’re forcibly separated from our loved ones. It allows us to feel a sense of connection, to commiserate and collaborate. At the same time, it is a constant parade of perfection that does not usually reflect reality.

This is true during the best of times, and even more so when we’re already fighting to keep our heads above water.

As Dr. Rob Whitley writes for Psychology Today,

“Many social media users portray themselves and their lives in an unrealistically flattering manner, sharing heavily sanitized and filtered versions of reality. The brief infrequent highlights are often presented as the norm while the routine monotonous grind of daily life is rarely shown.”

When it comes to social media, a single post offers little to no context.

We tend to show each other the special moments, the accomplishments, the celebrations, the times when our kids are oh so cute rather than the five minutes prior when they were acting like raging lunatics and we wanted to lock them in a closet just so we could have a moment’s peace.

That person who posted the delicious dinner he made last night? It might be the first time he’s been able to get out of bed in a week, but he probably doesn’t want to tell us that.

The friend who makes us feel jealous or inferior because she suddenly seems like she’s working out all day, every day? She may be, quite literally, running for her life. She feels like if she stops, she’ll break down and never be able to put herself back together.

The people who post the constant memes, as if COVID-19 is just one big hilarious joke? Like many of us, they’re trying to laugh so they don’t spiral into a pit of despair.

When our friends’ lists are filled with acquaintances (no one — and I mean NO ONE — has several hundred close friends), we may feel less comfortable sharing our day to day struggles. We may believe no one wants to hear it, anyway. We may be more likely to try to keep up appearances, even when our world seems to be going up in flames around us.

In reality, the state of our world is doing a number on many of us. I’m not going to pretend that what we’re all experiencing is in any way even or equal or fair, because it isn’t. Some of us are weathering this hurricane on much lower, much more vulnerable ground as the winds howl and swirl.

But many of us, dare I say most of us, can agree that we don’t feel right, not at all. We’re in a perpetual, heightened state of fear, and that has to do something to a person.

Research tells us it does indeed. As Dr. Jim Davies writes for Psychology Today, the world feels surreal. We’re having trouble thinking rationally, which puts us at risk for falling prey to hyperbole and propaganda. We’re asked to distance ourselves from others, which flies in the face of human nature and causes anxiety and myriad other physical reactions like insomnia. Some of us will end up with symptoms of trauma or PTSD.

50% of us, in a recent poll, said the pandemic has negatively impacted our mental health (Achenbach 2020) and I’d wager that’s a low-ball number.

While we’re doing our best to stay in touch through the means technology has provided us, Facebook can sometimes make us feel worse rather than better as it amplifies our feelings of isolation when we perceive the people in our newsfeed as having the time of their lives when it’s all we can do to bathe regularly or pay our bills.

Despite all of this — all the evidence, my own experience, the fact that my husband hates social media and wishes I didn’t partake — it’s unlikely I’m going to give up Facebook anytime soon. I miss my friends, I miss my family, and this is one of the ways I stay connected. Unless I’m related to you, my introverted self doesn’t really like phone calls, and I’m tired of staring at my weird-looking face on a Zoom video screen.

Instead of an all-out social media detox, I suggest the following, for myself and you.

Let’s celebrate together and grieve together, commiserate together, and offer each other our support. But let’s not try to compete with curated quarantine bliss that’s not grounded in reality. I commend us all for doing our best to make our relative situations as positive as we can, but no one is experiencing perfection right now, and we’re doing each other a disservice by pretending anything different.

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I live and write in Northeast Ohio, about everything from food to mental health, pets to relationships, music, art, and sports. My articles usually have a personal slant because I believe we as a society and as individuals grow stronger through truth-telling and connection.

Cleveland Heights, OH
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