Instagram and Self-Compassion


Heart that.
Hate that.
Oh, that looks fun, wish I’d been invited to something like that.
How is she literally always in a different location?
There’s that one person who I met twice who I really only kind of envy-follow.
Sugar Bear Hair Ad.


This is approximately what happens in the first ten minutes of my morning everyday, and man what a way to start your day. And by “a way to start your day” I, of course, mean “propably a really terrible way to prime your emotions for the next 17 hours ahead.”

Like most people, I know I shouldn’t do this, I know I should limit screen time, and I know the deleterious effects it can have on our mood, self-image, and understanding of other people. But scrolling on social media is designed like a slot machine that keeps you around until the next like, comment, or meme happens. If you’re lucky, sometimes you even hit a real connection point with a long-distance friend or relative.

I’ve written about my own experience of going without social media for Lent (i.e. 40 days) before, and while much of that is still true (i.e. wow I use this for comparison and unrealistic expectations WAY TOO MUCH), there are other effects that I’m only now starting to notice. The highlight reel effect—i.e. when you compare your behind the scenes, unedited life to someone’s picture perfect moment—is talked about a lot, and it teaches us not to compare a perfect image to what we might look like when we wake up in the morning. I know this. However, one thing I didn’t notice until recently was the emotional highlight reel I may unknowingly compare myself against.

For the most part, especially on social media such as Instagram and Facebook, people announce achievements, parties, life events, cute dogs, and who their #MCM is. This can be a good thing, and it can act as a way for people to share the joy in their life with others. This i a good thing. However, social media conspicuously lacks any hint of negative emotion a real human might experience. It’s sharing, but it’s only sharing the pretty emotions. It’s connecting, but only at the surface level of experience that is easy or fun to accept, and this is dangerous.

The lack of imperfect emotions—like sadness, jealousy, or bitterness—on social media makes sense. It’s the same way as when you first meet someone: you’re not going to lead with your scars or pains in the first five minutes of conversation. Telling people about the ugly parts is vulnerable, and you’re not going to be vulnerable with your whole newsfeed. This would be akin to getting therapy by getting on the PA system at your school and listing off your emotional wounds, 140 characters at a time. Ugly (i.e. not easy to process and hard to fix, not wrong) doesn’t feel fun to share in real life nor on social media.

The problem is not that we carry a box for sharing and a box for hiding on social media. The problem is that in real life, eventually the surface shell fades away to the vulnerable and soft underneath as two or three people become friends. In real life, we hopefully let people know that the image we once presented is actually much more deeply nuanced than our original presentation. On Instagram or facebook, the relationship doesn’t really progress to this in real life, let alone within the platform, especially when it concerns following people we don’t know in real life.

And we are innundated by it. We reach for the images and feeds whenever we have a moment alone, or are bored, or don’t want to look awkward in real life. At least, I do this. In our moments of boredom or awkwardness, we see pictures of life presented as it seemingly “should” be: life without pause, without acne or wrinkles, without loneliness or confusion, and without complications. Essentially, we see image after image of what life seems to be like for everyone else, and this life looks nothing like our own. Our own life is filled with incongruencies and is not quite as aesthetically pleasing as everyone else’s apparent lives, and we keep scrolling with the feeling that perhaps our lives and our normal daily happenings are not as good as everyone else’s.

Maybe this is true—I don’t personally know who you follow, and therefore maybe they are the one lucky human out there who truly has perfect emotions and a perfect body and a perfect life. For the grand majority of the population (i.e. like >99.5%), our daily lives have good cups of coffee and burnt eggs, scenic walks and accidentally stepping in dog shit, big accomplishments and big setbacks. And we have unpredictable emotions all along the way.

Be gentle with yourself the next time you scroll, or maybe try to not scroll at all. Have a little self-compassion as you surround yourself with perfect images—it really is okay to not feel perfect all the time, let alone look it. If and when you wake up tomorrow morning and turn to check Instagram, take it with a grain of salt and a hint of humor. Social media is where we show others what is easy to see, not where we show them what is the most true to see.


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