How many of us either give up or berate ourselves if we don’t get something right immediately? The common assumption is that if we’re not succeeding we must automatically be failing. Where does this come from? 

A growing body of evidence is pointing the finger of our comparison culture at social media, which teaches us that success is the only thing worth sharing. If we lived a life according to social media, our hobbies are meant to be our side hustles and we should be able to juggle and have it all, all while looking perfect along the way. 

It’s a toxic way of thinking that leads to anxiety and stress and is having a massive impact on our self-esteem. In todays world, comparing our lives with others seems to hold the position of being the number one culprit robbing us of a healthy self esteem. 

Its odd because we live in the age of self-esteem where young kids are told they can be anything they want, and developing your self-esteem is seen as valuable, where it wasn’t in generations before. Conversely, we also live in the age of photoshop where thirty-two years ago the tool was developed to make people blemish free and toned. This means young people today have grown up surrounded by images that are not real. 

What makes this more complicated is that we know innately that social media isn’t ‘real’. Statistics show that for every selfie we see, around ten attempts at that selfie have been made. We comprehend this in theory but our self esteem still takes a bashing because our brain is hard-wired to prioritise what it sees in front of it. 

Whether we realise it or not, this drives a desire to chase a standard that doesn’t exist and this pursuit can take a massive toll on our mental health. 

Fed by our need to be perfect, as the yardstick to being ‘good enough’, we have a belief that being the best at something will somehow make us more acceptable. 

Psychologists explain that perfectionism is a coping mechanism, usually learnt from childhood. At the heart of most perfectionists is a deep fear of disapproval, of not being ‘good enough’. We live in a world where everything is rated, liked and followed. This is what we use as the measurement of what ‘the best’ is. It’s leading us to develop unrealistic expectations that can make life torturous. 

We perceive our value as being based on external factors, usually the approval and acceptance we receive from others. We feel good about ourselves when we get other peoples approval. Where this becomes unhealthy is where we put our self-esteem and confidence levels in the hands of the people around us. 

It’s not social media that has invented comparison for us. Comparison is an instinct that starts early. From an early age, toddlers are looking to see what other babies are playing with. In fact, a paradigm study by Frans de Waal showed many years ago, that monkeys were perfectly happy exchanging their stones for cucumbers until other monkeys started getting grapes for their stones and the cucumber monkeys lost their cool. 

Whether online of in-life, comparison can be a trigger for negative thinking and foster a never-ending stream of negative self-beliefs. 

Comparison shoots our egos up or down at the behest of others opinions. The gains of feeling better than others by comparison is a temporary ego-boost. Once it fades our insecurities resurface, triggering the need for outside reassurance once again. It’s an unstable existence that fuels anxiety. 

Our need to be online is disguised as keeping in contact with others, sharing, interacting and keeping up with trends. Being online has become so prevalent that few people today are without some form of social media presence. 

So how do we ensure we don’t fall prey to the self-esteem zapping nature of social media? How do we become aware of ourselves and our online behaviours, if they are feeding into the comparison culture? And how can we ensure we don’t succumb to social media anxiety? 

Experts agree there are two main areas to focus on : 

  1. Boundaries – this means we need to mute or unfollow people or groups that trigger negative feelings in us. It also means doing things like limiting your time on social media or having a digital detox day every week. 
  2. Engage with healthy content – this means curating the kind of content you engage with. It’s liking pages with uplighting messages or cute kitten videos – it’s following things on social media that make you feel good and avoiding things that make you feel less than the wonderful and unique person you are. 

It also helps remembering that there will never be someone quite like you. What sets you apart may feel like a burden but it’s also what makes you unique and what makes you unique is what makes you exceptional. 

Kirsty Watermeyer