A new label has surfaced in the past few weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic: “quarantine bragging”. When people display their pride in accomplishments or hobbies on social media while sheltering in place, some of us are tempted to label these posts or images as the social media equivalent of “bragging” and, by default, the individual as a braggart. The label implies that the individual is disingenuous and motivated by harmful perfectionism. However, the most unhealthy aspect of the “quarantine bragging” label may be the heavy-handed judgment behind it.
Labeling others as “quarantine bragging” is a vehicle for passing negative judgment, affectively invalidating the experience of others. And it may be an unhelpful way for the person applying the label to cope with their own anxieties or negative self-appraisals. For everyone concerned, the label is unhelpful. The person labeling others is engaging in an unhealthy coping strategy that perpetuates the cycle of self-judgment and unhelpful envy. And the person labeled a braggart is experiencing invalidation and an attack on their resilience.
Negatively judging others and their content on social media as “quarantine bragging” is harmful to the person applying the label. At its core, this label embodies the spirit of tearing down others for the sake of personal edification: if you can’t beat ’em, beat ’em.
Paradoxically, however, downplaying others and their achievements, or dismissing them as false or disingenuous, feeds into the cycle of self-judgment. Judging others is a mental exercise that may make it easier for individuals to judge themselves in a negative way, and it may contribute to forms of unproductive envy, including depressive (self-judgmental) or hostile (judging others) envy. Judgment also reflects biases and, used often enough, our judgments are internalized and confused with reality.
In the wake of COVID-19, I’ve been able to continue working with clients via telehealth technology, and a surprising number of them this past week shared with me that they have been “feeling guilty” or “ashamed” at having discovered positive things about their experience in quarantine. They described feeling unable to share this with others, for fear of being judged.
Some of the positives they disclosed to me included being more intentional about connecting with loved ones, and being able to engage in self-care activities such as improved sleep schedules and at-home exercise routines. Also, engaging in home repair or organization projects has provided improved confidence in their ability to make positive changes in their lives — also known in psychology terms as increased self-efficacy. A more skeptical interpretation of this engagement in activities might be that this is an attempt to find order in otherwise uncontrollable times. While that might be true for some, for others these activities and achievements reflect the positive effects self-care and self-efficacy can have on feeling better. I shared with each of them that it’s okay to feel good about these positive behavioral changes, and it’s definitely okay to feel proud and pleased about organizing your closet. (Finally!)
As human beings, we can hold the following truths: these are difficult times for all of us, with many experiencing devastating personal loss, and yet we can also use this moment in time as an opportunity to discover the incredible resilience of humankind. Psychological resilience is about the capacity to mentally and emotionally cope with difficult situations. From this perspective, we must consider how displays of accomplishments on social media that might be perceived as “bragging” could also reflect an effort for individuals to display their resilience and sources of positivity despite the current situation. In a recent article about resilience in the face of adversity, the American Psychological Association points out that embracing healthy thoughts, which includes maintaining a hopeful or positive outlook, is a key factor for building resilience.
Yes, many people display a presentational, or curated, self on social media. However, as human beings, we should be able to hold both the challenges and accomplishments of our neighbors. Rather than accuse and judge others for being disingenuous through their social media posts, let’s celebrate the resilience of humankind in general, as many try to make the proverbial “lemonade out of lemons.”
For those of us feeling distressed, anxious, or full of self-judgment during these uncertain times, it’s equally okay to admit we are wonderfully imperfect without having to resort to tearing others down. Instead, build up your own foundation of personal strength and resilience. Celebrate in your small achievements: maybe the closet is a disorganized mess, but today you made time to enjoy the best cup of homemade thrown together soup with the most random of ingredients you had in the fridge and it was delicious. Wouldn’t be wonderful to take a photo of that soup and share it on Instagram, so others could celebrate this achievement with you? Imagine how much more wonderful sharing your success would be if it was received without judgment or doubt, but instead celebrated as the display of resilience it is. As a therapist, my hope is that everyone can tap into their personal strengths and reservoir of resilience as we navigate the new social norms in the wake of COVID-19.