How To Break The Debilitating Social Media Cycle Of 'Compare And Despair'
The Debrief: Are you stuck in a compare and despair rut of social needia?
I don't own a 'smart jacket', let alone a house. All my ideas are crap. I'm rubbish at my job and am only there by some kind of fluke. My friends earn more than me. I haven't even mastered the art of shaving my legs without cutting them yet. At this age, I really should have finished my sci-fi novel/fantasy musical/seminal riot grrl record/insert life goal here.
These are all genuine but glaringly bonkers thoughts that whirl through my head every time I'm logged into Facebook or Instagram. Writing them down makes me realise how ridiculous they are. Well, minus the leg shaving (I really do want to nail that). But, thanks to social media, everyone else's achievements are right there to see, making your own seem pale in comparison.
Look - of course, I'm chuffed when any woman I know IRL or online gets a book deal or lands an incredible promotion, but I can't help but think 'what the hell am I doing? Why haven't I done that?' This 'comparison anxiety' has pushed me into making some pretty weird career decisions...lest we forget the time I set up a vegan food blog called Church of Seitan (I'm not even vegan).
Constantly, I feel like I'm not good enough, I'm not far along enough in my career, I'm leagues behind the other talented, motivated, successful women I know. I try to remember and repeat the following mantra: I'm lucky to be in full time, permanent, reasonably paid employment in my chosen field. But, honestly, I feel like a fraud. Like I've blagged my way through the first 28 years of my life and at any minute, I'm going to be rumbled.
I'm certainly not alone. Most of my friends feel the same, even though every single one of them is kicking ass in their own way – whether that's producing plays, travelling the world, or spawning tiny, adorable versions of themselves.
'I compare myself to really super cool girls who are out there bossin' it in every area of life,' Blair*, 24, tells me. 'Sometimes I stalk people's LinkedIn profiles to see what year they graduated and then ask myself why I'm not as successful as them. It makes me feel like a pile of balls, I don't know why I do it. The people who have books out kill me. I think "I'm 24! I'm old enough to have a damn book deal!”'
Holly*, 28, does the same. 'Now I'm getting older I'm starting to compare my life to others' more. I've even deleted Facebook three times to try and stop myself,' she says. 'The main thing that makes me angsty is reading about women (and occasionally men) who are around my age and who I perceive to be similarly talented. Say they get offered some opportunity, I'll think “I could've gotten that if I'd known about it/had more contacts/tried a bit harder/started earlier. I'll study their online presence, try to glean some detail about how it is they've got this edge on me.'
At first, I thought 'comparison anxiety' was a good thing. In the past, it was the motivation I needed to return the giant bag of Cheetos to the cupboard, put on some pants and start writing. But, in recent months, I've realised that it's gone from harmless to unhealthy - taking over my brain space and my life. Of the time I spend mindlessly pawing through my Facebook feed, 80 percent of it is spent feeling angry, inadequate or just plain low. So, why the hell do so many of us do this to ourselves?!
For 'comparison coach' Lucy Sheridan, comparing herself to others began when she was a child. 'I remember being five years old when my brother was born and thinking: "am I as cute as he is? Do my parents love me as much as him?” It all got a bit weird.'
Like so many of us, Lucy, now 33, went on to compare herself to others throughout school, uni and her former career in advertising. 'It all came to a crunch about five years ago when I went to a school reunion,' she explains. 'Things weren't great in my personal life as my husband's business was going under and we were losing our house. What was a really nice nostalgic day had a pretty brutal aftermath for me because I had a lot of Facebook unfriendly stuff going on. I was freaking out big time because I was in my late twenties and it all felt the opposite of aspirational. Everyone I'd just reconnected with was going forwards, but I was going backwards.
Going into meltdown mode, Lucy spent hours under her duvet, years deep in old school friends' Facebook and Instagram pictures. And it was making her feel really crappy. 'I realised I'd got myself into this trap so I was going to have to get myself out of it,' she says. 'I'd been on coaching training courses and one day decided as comparison had always been my thing, I'd help people through it. First, I learned how to snap myself out of it quickly, getting my recovery time down from a few weeks to a few hours.'
After setting up her website Proof Coaching, Lucy landed on the term 'social needia' to describe Gen Y's obsession with likes and comments. 'Social needia can bring out our need to be validated by shares and likes. I noticed clients were doing things for attention or for validation online, not necessarily because they wanted to.'
She also noticed hundreds of her clients, mainly 26 to 33-year-old women, were getting locked in a cycle of what she calls 'compare and despair'. 'Comparison starts off with a physical reaction which is immediately followed by jealousy or a feeling of being stuck. It's like a funky fog because it's not easy to shake off. For many of us, it can lead to a downward spiral of looking for evidence that we are worth something. On social media, you see people at premieres, or going for promotions, or going into another fucking departure lounge for a work trip, and all you're seeing are the things you're not doing and haven't achieved.'
Ultimately, this has a knock on effect on our confidence and self-esteem. Lucy says comparison can sometimes be a good thing. 'It holds insight for us. A client once came to me and she was pretty burnt out. Her comparison wobbles were all around a girl she used to work with. This girl was getting all these amazing opportunities and travelling with work. When we got to the crux of it, she couldn't name a time she had a break from or enjoyed work. Through discovering this, I was able to guide her and figure out exactly what was missing from her work life. We created a specific plan so she could go after what she wanted in a way that felt good for her. It turned out her own career fulfilment had fuck all to do with this other girl's air miles. So you can actually use the comparison to make the life changes you want to.'
Admittedly, Lucy still compares herself to others. 'Seeing examples of success shows us how much there is to go around and how many different routes there are. Even though we think the route to success is linear, no one takes the same path.'
So how do we make sure we use comparison to our advantage? 'One of my top pieces of advice that I try to sprinkle around like glitter is about treating your social media feeds like a house party. If that person, brand or thing (whether it's your own sister or Jenny in accounts) doesn't make you feel good and you wouldn't invite them to a house party because they don't bring something to it, then they shouldn't be on your feed. The end.'
'This doesn't mean you have to do the big unfriending exercise, but you can hide and unfollow the stuff that doesn't make you feel good. Social media is meant to be a fun part of the internet for us to hang out in. Just as we can add, accept and welcome in these streams of content, we can consciously take back the power and shut out any negativity. If your sister's boast posts are starting to get on your tits to the point where it's affecting your relationship, she's got to go.'
Lucy also suggests setting a reminder once a month to have a 'sweep up'. Looking at your channels with comparison in mind will help you get rid of anything that doesn't contribute to positive feelings or isn't challenging in the right way.
'It's about managing it, not detoxing,' Lucy adds. 'We're in the awkward toddler stage of our relationship with social media and if we don't learn to manage it now, we'll be absolutely paralysed by it soon.'
It's also helpful to reexamine your definition of success. 'When you think about what success is, you have to follow it with the question 'who says?' because your success will be different to my success. Your success should be the only one you want.'
'No matter what, success isn’t going to be found down the rabbit hole of another Instagram account.' Lucy adds, 'In one scroll you can pass Kim Kardashian's selfie and then your friend's giant burrito. No wonder we're all a bit confused.'
What she's saying makes total sense. From here on in, I'm gonna look to the Peep Show School of Life and take a leaf out of Jeremy Usbourne's Rizla packet and answer to a higher law. The law of 'if it feels good, do it'. And comparison anxiety certainly does not feel good, no sir.
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