When you say it out loud, it sounds silly, comical, and absurd. But in the moment, you can’t help but compare yourself to strangers on social media.
You scroll through your feed, and look at all sorts of smiling faces. And you see they’re happier than you. Their homes are tidier with bright, sunny, remodeled kitchens. Their closets are perfectly curated, with a seasonal capsule wardrobe. They eat fresh, locally-sourced, home-cooked meals every day. They travel regularly. They’re patient, fun-loving parents.
And you feel so the opposite of that.
You are so the opposite of that. Most days, you feel like your life is a mess. You’ve got a screaming, sassy toddler, and spit-up all over your shirt (and maybe hair). You’ve got a closet in every room that requires excavating. You get take-out — which is neither fresh nor locally sourced. Often.
Some days are just tough. And so even though it sounds silly and comical and absurd when you say it aloud, you still find yourself poring over pictures on Instagram or Facebook, and wondering why you seem to be falling short.
And after way too much time spent on scrolling and comparing, you wonder, why am I comparing myself to people I don’t know when I know it’s harmful and pointless, when I know they’re only showing one (thin) slice of their lives?
One explanation is that “we are more pack animal than lone wolf,” said Jenn Hardy, Ph.D, a psychologist who runs a private practice in Maryville, Tenn.
“We are hard-wired for evolutionary reasons to want to fit into groups as this ensured our survival as a species,” said Jennifer Rollin, MSW, LCSW-C, a therapist and founder of The Eating Disorder Center in Rockville, Maryland, which provides eating disorder recovery coaching, along with therapy for adolescents and adults struggling with eating disorders, body image issues, anxiety, and depression.
“To stay with the pack, we need to make sure we are following the rules and fitting in. In order to figure this out, we look around us to see how we compare,” Hardy said. Of course, what we see isn’t an accurate picture. It’s everyone’s highlight reels. And we know this. We know this intellectually and cognitively.
But, as Hardy said, that’s very different from convincing “the instinctual, emotional parts of our brain that the data it’s getting is inaccurate.”
However, this doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do. Below, you’ll find a few ways to deal with comparing yourself to strangers on social media.
- Be intentional about who you follow. Hardy calls it “Marie Kondo-ing your Instagram feed.” “If an account doesn’t spark joy, then thank it, and click unfollow.” She also suggested finding people who post more honestly about their lives. As psychologist Christina Iglesia, Psy.D, said, “Very few people are posting their failures, setbacks, or disappointments causing a significant imbalance of what one will see as they scroll through their newsfeed. For the majority of us, our social media feeds are filled with beautiful people, exotic destinations, and perfectly curated food.” That’s why Hardy follows other therapists. “They are real, not glossy images of a pretend life.” Hardy also follows people who have different careers, such as artists and cartoonists. “It’s sparked a real creative energy in me…”
- Notice your stories—and reframe them. Rollin suggested paying attention to the times you start comparing yourself to others on social media. “What stories are you telling yourself about that other person or yourself? What feelings are coming up? Do any urges come up?” Then consider if the stories you’re telling yourself are helpful for leading you in the direction of the life you want, Rollin said. If they’re not helpful, ask yourself, “What might be more helpful to tell myself?” According to Rollin, it’s unhelpful to think, “Her life is so put together. What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I seem to juggle everything?” You might reframe this story into: “She’s showing one part of her life on social media—it’s a highlight reel and not the full picture. No one is perfect, and I’m definitely not alone in struggling with juggling everything.”
- Limit your use. “If you begin to notice that you are going down the rabbit hole of comparison, you can set a time limit on all of your social media apps in an effort to mitigate the negative effects,” said Iglesia, founder of the mental health campaign #therapyiscool. “The idea behind this recommendation is that the less time we spend on social media, the less time we will aimlessly scroll through filtered images that invite feelings of self-doubt and inadequacy.”
All three clinicians interviewed also find themselves getting sucked into the comparison trap. As Iglesia said, “There is a common misconception that therapists don’t struggle in the same ways our patients do. We are all susceptible to throwing logic out the window and engaging in the problematic mind games social media can elicit.”
When Iglesia starts to question her sense of self, she scales back her social media use.
When this happens to Rollin, she tells herself these important reminders: “Social media is a highlight reel and you don’t know what is actually going on behind the scenes, or how someone might actually be feeling. Things like ‘number of followers’ or ‘likes’ do not define your worth as a human. Most people struggle with comparing themselves on some level—even the people that you might be comparing yourself too.”
When Hardy first started her Instagram account to build up a therapy writing career, she felt intimidated by the large followings of fellow therapists. As her following grew so did her definition of a “large following.” The other accounts become “dangling carrots. I could never seem to catch up.”
Hardy also would get upset when a post she loved fell flat and pressure herself to “somehow instantly be a better writer and algorithm player when someone else’s post exploded.”
What’s helped her is a variety of tools: For instance, Hardy reminds herself of all the random and out-of-her-control variables that lead to a post being “successful.” She also takes breaks from social media, and prioritizes offline time with loved ones. And she’s developed friendships with other therapy writers she admires. “We can relate to the same frustrations. We don’t feel so isolated because of our connection to each other on Instagram. And we can celebrate each other’s successes instead of feeling jealous of them.”
Comparing ourselves to strangers on social media isn’t so strange. We’re simply trying to fit in, a desire that’s deeply ingrained in us. And we can turn to different tools to help us minimize our comparison-making ways, and work on accepting ourselves and our current situations—whether they include capsule wardrobes, clear counters, decluttered closets, or the complete opposite.