In the middle of one of a very bad year I signed up for a yoga retreat because my anxiety was out of control and it was worth being embarrassed about my lack of yoga skills for the promise of some peace of mind. “You’re always on vacation,” a friend commented on one of the photos I uploaded to Instagram. I laughed out loud when I saw it, if she only knew how much I was struggling right now. There was nothing glamorous here, nothing to be jealous of — but I realized that’s not how it looked from the outside even though I wasn’t intentionally putting on any kind of facade.
A few years ago I asked a group of women to tell the story behind one of their Instagram photos for an article and it was really powerful. There was a feeling of relief that accompanied reading each story. I’m smart enough to know, consciously, that it’s only going to stress me out to compare my real life to everyone’s highlights (which are, naturally, what people post about), but I still think those feelings of insecurity and FOMO and the worry that I might be the only person who doesn’t have everything figured out get absorbed anyway. The feeling I had while reading these stories was that of undoing damage I didn’t know I had. I realized how normal all my messiness is, and I wanted other people to experience this relief as well, so I turned the project into a book.
What I Didn’t Post on Instagram is a collection of short essays about real lives and the things we filter out before we present them to the outside world. I’ve been collecting bite-sized versions of these stories the book’s contributors and readers have posted on social media below — it’s a kind of shortcut to understanding how powerful this book really is.
You can add your story to this article by posting it on your social media with #WhatIDidntPostonInstagram or sending it to firstname.lastname@example.org
People fawn over pics of my newborn
“What the first few weeks of motherhood are REALLY like: I was too exhausted to put the straps of my tank top on.”
Sometimes I use a timer to take pics
“You wouldn’t realize it, but I’m alone here.”
Sometimes pics are for the person taking them, not the viewer
“Reality: My boyfriend had just broken up with me and my eyes were still puffy from crying over it. I was sitting outside, working, feeling sorry for myself and decided to post this (sideview so you can’t see the puffiness) photo with an inspiring caption to hopefully inspire myself out of my funk. Months later, I reposted it to remind myself that in time, yes, healing is possible.”
You don’t see everything that leads up to a happy moment
“My mom took this picture and she said, “that’s your real smile.” What she didn’t know was I spent 30 minutes in the car alone crying before meeting her because I got my heart broken and it took everything and a few drinks to hold it together that day. This was a happy moment, but it was a really tough day and no one even knew it.”
No one’s life is perfect
“This is the view at my parents’ lake house in Atlanta. I was lucky enough to get to live here all summer. I was surrounded by my amazing family every day, and the sun was always shining. But I was so sick. Mentally and physically. I have Crohn’s Disease and it flared up this summer. I could barely eat. Everything went right through me. I was on a diet of about 5 things. I was too sick to work. Even the act of getting out of bed took everything out of me. I felt constantly anxious and depressed, like I was always on the verge of a breakdown. I spent the days wondering why I couldn’t be and feel like everyone else, instead of embracing my reality and making the most of it. The view all summer was beautiful, but I didn’t see it because I was too busy feeling trapped inside my own mind and body.”
You never know what someone is struggling with behind the scenes
“Here I am at a fancy winery with my friends. They all make so much more than me that I am drowning in credit card debt trying to keep up with them.”
Everyone’s relationships are up and down
“The caption to this picture would be “Staycation with my babe.” The truth is that my now ex-boyfriend decided to plan a romantic weekend for us at the W hotel to decide if he was still interested in me or not. He wasn’t. I was completely clueless. After getting out of a two year relationship I had promised myself to swear off men, until this guy came along. He told me how much he liked me, how beautiful I was, how he couldn’t stop thinking about me and how I should give him a chance. I did, and 4 days after that romantic stay-cation he dumped me. There I was, heartbroken and devastated AGAIN. And then on top of that I had to deal with the comments I got when I changed my relationship status on Facebook back to “single” – “Wait didn’t you guys just have that romantic weekend at the W?’”
People document the good things in their life, not the bad
“I’m struggling with depression right now. My life looks charmed and beautiful and happy and nobody would know that I wake up every day with dread and anxiety and helplessness. People see that I’m adventuring all around a beautiful city, but what I wouldn’t put on Instagram is a picture of the couch I sat on last night as I explained to a therapist how my last resort would be to go on antidepressants, but that secretly inside thought I probably needed to be on them. I’m scared and I’m struggling.”
Laughing for the photo
“This is me on the roof of my building forcing myself to laugh. Every time I make my best friend take photos of me I remember that I’ve been single for 5 years and don’t have anyone to be in the photo with me. I’m just alone. My hair looks good though.”
Everyone feels lost sometimes
“This photo was taken shortly after I moved out of my apartment in the city to a small suburban town. I was depressed, felt I had a loss of control over my life, was wondering if I was living my life for me or always for other people, and I was just unexplainably sad. My boyfriend and I took a walk around this lake, thought some sun and nature would make me feel good. I think it helped but when we got home I still missed what I left behind and felt lost in the place I currently was.”
Everyone gets worried about how others will view them
“One thing I noticed is that I don’t post that much because every time I go to post something I think, “Why would anyone care what I have to say about this?” And I have to have this pep talk with myself every time I go to post something and then I obsess over the caption for at least 30 minutes wondering, “Does this sound stupid?” “Did I spell anything wrong?” “Is that really how I feel?” “This is a shit picture. [insert name here] would have done a better job.” Then I usually delete it. It’s probably why I don’t post pictures of just me, unless I’m with other people. And I tend to stick to pictures of landscapes or things. It’s easier to celebrate, or simply put others out there, even objects, than it is to put myself out there.”
We even worry about being good enough dog moms
“I have a ton of anxiety about whether or not I’m a good companion for my dog. He’s so anxious, just like me, and I fear often that my understanding of his “needs” is really just projections of my own feelings of inadequacy as a caretaker. If I’d raised him differently, would he be a different dog? What if he doesn’t get enough walks, enough time, enough face snuggles? The short answer is: he doesn’t. He never will. He is innocent and deserves everything in the world and I will always fall short. But here, at least, he looks relaxed and pensive and happy, and I hope he actually is.”
Some people choose what to post based on what will get the most likes
“I photograph a lot of the food I eat, but I also don’t photograph a lot of my salads, green juices and (especially) the gym sessions to counter the more indulgent stuff. Nobody’s interested in those things — they just want to have their cake and eat it, too, so I don’t post the reality of it all. The reality is, the reality doesn’t perform as well.”
Everyone has cropped the equivalent of cat puke out of one of their photos
“I cropped out the dirty laundry and the cat puke on the rug.”
“This is me appearing to be enjoying my first cup of coffee in the morning. I captioned this with one song from FRIENDS “Mornings are Here,” making it seem like I’ve had a great sleep and I was all up and ready for another great day.
Truth is, I wasn’t able to get even a wink of sleep. I stayed up all night thinking about all the things I struggle to shut down night after night. I couldn’t sleep because as it turns out, sleeping does not stop all the anxiety creeping all over me, almost eating me alive. I couldn’t sleep not because I couldn’t completely, but because I’m scared about all the other episodes of my past showing up in my dreams.”
“I took this photo by shoving my phone in between the wedge of a garbage can and turning on the self timer because no one else was really around and the people who were there didn’t speak English. I was traveling alone in Sydney, which might have looked glamorous from photos but I was really, really lonely and sad. I left the states in May and this photo was taken at the end of September. People always commented on my pictures saying how jealous they were but no one really knew how hard it was to be so far away in such a beautiful, busy place but feel so alone and out of place. I didn’t want to admit that I wasn’t having the time of my life because I didn’t want to feel like I failed to some degree or that this “life of travel” wasn’t all I hoped it would be. There’s a lot the camera doesn’t capture.”
“For the first time in weeks, I wanted to actually leave my apartment and do something. My cousin Samantha finally convinced me we should go grab some coffee at this local coffeehouse I had become obsessed with. She fixed my hair a different way. I threw on a small bit of makeup. When we ordered our coffee and sat down, it was taking all I had not to break down. “I don’t think he and I are going to last much longer.” We both glanced down to my left hand holding the forgoes diamond ring. I had been engaged to the first man I had ever loved for about 8 months. By all accounts, we were a great couple. We were well liked, we were in love, and I was happier than I ever could’ve dreamed at the prospect of spending the rest of my life with who I viewed to be my best friend. What I expected to be stressed about was wedding planning and getting everything prepared for a new life. Instead, I had been stressing because our relationship didn’t even look like it would survive at all. What had started as simple suggestions about how I lived (“you should be more organized. Maybe try to find a better job.”) turned into frustrations and fights. I couldn’t change myself overnight, and despite that I certainly tried, there was always a new thing to work on, a new way to make myself better- a new way that I was falling short.
In the meantime, all anyone around me could ask was “so when is the wedding?” Or what flowers we wanted. Or where it would be. Or had I purchased my dress yet? We had started quickly getting things together in the beginning of the engagement, but after two months we didn’t spend money on it because I still had “progress to make.” With each new question from well-intended strangers asking about what was potentially to be the best day of my life, I would try not to lose my composure. I would always wait until I made it home before I let a smile leave my face.
By month 8, I was emotionally, mentally, and physically drained. I couldn’t remember the last time I had been happy for more than a day or two in a row. I was having a hard time remembering the last time I’d been happy, period. So when Samantha asked me if I wanted to talk about things, I broke down and told her everything. She took it all in, sighed, and said “i guess if it’s meant to happen, then it will.” We sat still for a moment, until she asked if she could take a picture of me. “You look so pretty today.” She gave me a moment to pose, and then I glanced down at my left hand again. All my picture lately had been overshadowed by this sparkling diamond- no one could talk about anything else. So, I slipped my left hand just out of view of the shot, so the focus was on me, not on a ring that felt heavier every single day.
I posted the picture that afternoon- the first time I had smiled in a long time that felt genuine in some way. The next day, my relationship would end, and although it would be devastating, I would look at this picture from time to time, to remind myself it was better than being a girl who tried to pretend she had everything together when she was barely holding herself together.
Sometimes, it’s better to just admit you don’t, and simply let go.”
“When I gave him the sketchbook containing this and several other sketches and drawings of us and some milestones in our relationship, he couldn’t stop crying. It was then that he told me that originally he had come to break up with me because he didn’t want to get stuck with a girl like me. But this gesture of mine made him change his mind, and that he couldn’t believe that he was about to break-up with a person who loved him so much. Indeed, I was willing to get stuck with him for a lifetime.
But ultimately he did dump me for another girl. People commented on this picture, “#relationshipgoals”, “Stop making everyone jealous”, “I wish I had someone who’d do anything like this for me.”
His opinions were quite the contrary. He couldn’t think of any future with me.”
I don’t post those
“After posting yet another accomplishment pic in a long line of happy pics; winning a paddle board race, camping with my dog, beautiful sunsets on the water, aerial yoga, cycling in the mountains
A friend posted, “Is there anything you can’t excel at?” I just said, “I don’t post those.”
What I didn’t post was that I was a failure at relationships. A real failure with 3 divorces and a string of awesome boyfriends. I am not jealous of anyone’s possessions but I am jealous and in awe of those who can have accomplished long lasting and loving relationships. I know it’s not easy and I’m willing to work at it but why can’t I do THAT one thing?”
The reason for the vacation
“This post was captioned with a quote about adventuring and bragging about solo bikepacking but the reality was I had just reported my sexual assault and was getting threats from my rapist while dealing with my Dad’s terminal cancer. I couldn’t sleep and I could feel a relapse creeping up so I packed my bag took my dog and stayed in the deep forest until I felt safe. I cried and felt helpless and contemplated never coming back. I was miserable. ”
I like to pretend I’m somewhere else
“I took this picture in Norway — it’s just one of the many travel photos that litter my feed. People always comment saying they wish they could travel as often as I do, but honestly, I only ever do it when my depression starts getting bad and I get this overwhelming urge to run from my problems. I like to pretend that if I’m somewhere else, I can be someone else, and that maybe, just maybe, that person knows how to be happy.”