What Happens When We Compare Ourselves To Our Facebook Newsfeeds

Jökull Auðunsson
Jökull Auðunsson

Facebook makes me feel bad about myself.

Almost every time I navigate away, I feel like I just finished eating an oversized slice of not-particularly-delicious chocolate cake. I shouldn’t eat it in the first place, and eating it when it’s not really that tasty is even worse. But I eat it because it’s in front of me, because there’s something vaguely satisfying in it, despite the knowledge that I’ll regret doing so almost immediately after. I rarely really enjoy spending time on Facebook, and I know that if I spend 10 minutes on the site, I’ll end up wasting 45.

Why does it make me feel bad? Scrolling through random events and photographs and updates, I come away convinced that I’m lagging behind in competitions for things I don’t necessarily want, and that I am having a much more difficult go at this “life” thing than everyone else. Not difficult in that I’m beset by real challenges—I’m a 20-something American in good health—but instead beset by existential crisis and day-to-day difficulties that others don’t seem to face. I read a newsfeed full of achievements and photographs of house renovations, vacations, marriages, babies, nights out…and compare this aggregate with my own life, full of adventure, sure, but also full of confusion and uncertainty and baggage and more confusion…and come away feeling pretty dysfunctional. And then I sign off, telling myself that their lives are lame and they’ll wake up in 15 years wishing they didn’t have that mortgage or that teenager, as if it really is a competition and they aren’t yet aware that they’re losing. I fall right into the trap every time.

We all have hopes and fears. We all have relationships of various sorts, and relationships—even the ones with awesome people who want the best for us and treat us well—are messy. We all have parents and grades and jobs and taxes and bills and regrets and goals and things we hate about ourselves and things we wished other people would notice about us. And we know, rationally, that if this is true for us, it is also true for everyone else.

But despite this common ground, I still compare myself to other people, and come out feeling like a mess. And I’m not alone. We watch the other blobs of humanity wander about, looking purposeful, and assume that they are, in fact, purposeful and that everything in their life is as simple and wonderful as it seems. But I don’t have a messier life than do other people, I am just only able to know the complexity of my own feelings. Rationalizing that the lives of people on my newsfeed are probably as complicated and messy as I am, knowing that their worlds are hectic, and taking solace in it or allowing it to give me reprieve from this perceived competition, are entirely different things.

We all deal with our fears (or not) and go after our dreams (or don’t) and trip and fall down. We get hung up on things that we shouldn’t obsess over, fall in love with people whom we shouldn’t love, and hurt people’s feelings. We have jobs in which we feel undervalued, insurance that doesn’t cover what it should, and parents who disapprove of something we’re doing.

But we also have happy things, successes and accomplishments and raises and vacations. We fall in love, adopt puppies, and spend unforgettable evenings in dive bars with close friends.

Life is a roller coaster, and we live our lives and watch the people around us live theirs, but we’re only ever able to see what’s going on on the surface, in the photographs and highlights and yearly family update newsletters. And with constant connection and technology providing only a few details instead of the messy confusion underneath, our own ups and downs are only exacerbated. We see everyone else buy houses and cars and having babies, or getting married, and it looks SO easy.

But if they make figuring life out look so easy, why can’t we do it?

These people post happy photographs and statuses. Their lives seem entirely uncomplicated and positive, and I can’t help but compare their seemingly comfortable existence with my own, with the frustrations and difficulty and uncertainty that seems like a daily part of my life—and I feel inadequate. Broken. Abnormal. I have moments where I feel like everything on track, and those moments are inevitably followed by moments in which it feels like everything is falling apart and I will absolutely never be a fully functioning adult the way other people seem able to be.

We rely on what we see and what people present to the world as a metric for judging our own inadequacies. Before social media, we knew precious little about anyone who wasn’t a close friend. You either knew someone deeply enough that you got below the surface and could see that they were just as much of a complicated mess as you were, or you didn’t really spend much time comparing yourself to them because you didn’t know enough about them to do so.

Social media makes us feel like we’re closer to a lot of people, but we’re only close to the persona they cultivate online. We see what they eat for breakfast, we see where they go on vacation, and we see when they lose 20 pounds or run a 10k for the first time. And we feel like we know them. Cue dismal feelings and self-examination, based on what? On the highlight reel? And yet we take these best-of clips and measure our own inadequacies against them.

This is why again and again, researchers are finding that the more we use Facebook, the less happy we are. John Jonides, a University of Michigan cognitive neuroscientist, found the effects of Facebook are most pronounced for those who socialize the most “in real life.” The folks who did the most direct, face-to-face socializing and used social media were the ones who reported the most Facebook-related mood decline. Those face-to-face socializers see both the good and the bad, the complexity that comes with real, developed friendships.

When we have real friendships, deep ones, we know that their lives are just as complicated and confusing as our own. Regular contact and conversations that aren’t all about “what you’ve been up to” but instead focus on the gritty details of something going on in that particular moment of that person’s life, this kind of contact gives you insight into the complexity of the human experience. They’re not filtering it for you, because that’s sort of the purpose of friendship. You see friends unravel in the unhealthiest of ways when a relationship ends; you see them frozen with indecision at a particular life-fork; you see impulsiveness and regret and uncertainty. And suddenly, you feel less alone, and this only strengthens the bond you feel with the person willing to share their mess of a life with you.

So should we spend less time on Facebook? Should we disable our accounts in favor of nurturing real friendships instead, friendships that will demonstrate and verify that we all have sometimes-icky, complicated lives? How do we stop comparing ourselves to others so much?

At the very least, we should remember to appreciate the complexity and the mess inherent in life, as frustrating and painful as it can sometimes be. We shouldn’t be chasing that simple life where everything comes easily, exactly when we expect it to. I don’t want a mortgage even if other people my age are buying their first house. I don’t want to have it all sorted out because I’m 28 and there are a lot of years left to live. Sorting my life out now seems like it’d leave me with a lot of boring years. Maybe figuring it all out can be a lifetime endeavor.

One of my best friends in the world told me, a long time ago when we were in college talking about relationships and whether or not we wanted to marry the boys we were dating (neither of us are with them now) that she didn’t understand the people who wanted to get married right away. She wanted to savor each stage of a relationship, since even if you’re with the right person, you only get each stage once. One chance to be nervous around them, on your best behavior and trying to impress them. One “we’re now exclusive” stage where they’re new and you’ve just acknowledged mutual feelings. One moment when you both say “I love you” for the first time. One time for “living together and only pooping when the other isn’t home”…one engagement, one marriage. Savor each phase. Don’t rush through the first 10 so you can settle in the last few simply because you feel like getting there is some sort of accomplishment worthy of Facebook.

We feel this rush to sort everything out, to have all the things we want and to have them now, and to rid ourselves of all the things we don’t want, the things that frustrate and upset us. Maybe we should abandon our impatience, to be established and comfortable and purposeful like our peers seem to be. Maybe we should savor the confusion and figuring-it-out and the mistakes. Maybe we should celebrate the dead-end job that we take because it brings us something else we want: more free time, the ability to live in a particular place, a great discount on plane tickets or bicycles or bottles of wine.

Maybe I’ll start putting up statuses about how damn confusing and frustrating and disappointing life is, just so the other people out there feel like they’re not alone. Maybe this urge to give our Facebook profiles a positive veneer is an exertion of what little control we have over our lives, an attempt to fit in to what we perceive other people to be experiencing, a digital 10-year high school reunion. Maybe we should all acknowledge, even a little bit more, that none of our lives are simple, easy, clean, or organized. Maybe Miley IS right, and “it’s all about the climb.” And acknowledging that the climb is, in fact, uphill and not always easy is actually okay. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

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