At some point since the start of the year, my mom gave up on Facebook. She'd created a profile awhile back, mainly for the purpose of reconnecting with old friends from school and college -- like so many of us do -- and for awhile it was great and nostalgic. But then it started getting inside her head -- like it does -- and she told me the more she read about the accomplishments of her contemporaries, the crappier she felt about her own life in comparison.
This is not an unusual occurance, and the reaction isn’t even always logical. A couple of years ago I read a Facebook post from a high school friend (who may well be reading this, as all my xoJane posts are shipped to my Facebook pages automatically, resulting in people who knew me at seventeen occasionally posting comments on posts about when I was seventeen, creating a weird vortex in which my memory and perception, their memory and perception, and some amalgam of objective reality all collide and swirl down the drain together) who had secured a somewhat high-profile literary agent.
Reading her happy announcement, I felt instantly nauseated, and disappointed in myself. Yeah, I know, but I'm being honest. I felt this in spite of the fact that I already had signed a book deal of my own, with a publisher I adore, and an excellent fit for the book in question. It didn’t matter in that moment, because I didn’t have an agent, and I immediately began to chastize myself, because Real Writers have agents, and I must be a fraud or just not that good because I hadn’t managed to respond to the would-be agents who had emailed me so far, asking after any book proposals I might have lying around getting dusty and emphatically complimenting my work.
(I still accept these emails, for any would-be agents still lingering under my balcony, and often I will even respond months later, in a rare fit of adult optimism and ambition, although I have been very unreliable in actually delivering those promised proposals, because I am sometimes still a socially-inept eleven-year-old, scared that my sending you a completed proposal will shatter your clearly mistaken ideas about my competence as an author. It’s not rational, I know.)
(In answer to your unspoken question, reader: Yes, most writers really are this neurotic about their writing, if about nothing else in their lives. At least, I have yet to meet one who isn’t.)
Of course, I responded to High School Friend’s happy news with congratulations (I think -- I meant to) and I would never wish her anything but the greatest success, because she deserves it, but it haunted me for weeks after. The truth is I’ve always felt a little less accomplished than most of my friends from that high school era, most of whom became lawyers or other incredibly smart professional types, while I spent a decade following the acquisition of two brutally impractical Master’s degrees -- and numerous PhD rejection letters -- languishing in a cubicle doing the the same dull administrative job because I had yet to spot a viable opportunity to do anything else.
Also, there was the crushing student loan debt to consider, which meant my options for chucking it all in favor of free-spiriting my way to some other career were pretty limited. Like many of us, I need a paycheck to live, and all the wishful enthusiasm and magical thinking in the world won’t change that intractable truth.
Even though I had accepted that I was unlikely to find happiness or success via the paths my friends eventually took, I found myself making comparisons, convincing myself that I would have been better off if I’d just forced myself into law school, grimacing and holding my nose as if it were so much bitter medicine to be swallowed.
I still do this sometimes, on bad days when I feel as though I have nothing of interest to say to anyone, although I now know enough people with unused JDs hanging around their necks like doomed albatrosses to realize that no one path ensures anyone’s financial or personal success.
Earlier this week, Forbes ran a piece asking the question, “Is Social Media Destroying Your Self Esteem?" In it, the author criticizes sites like Pinterest as feeding women’s need to be impossibly perfect, drawing some fairly obvious correlations between these new socially-driven outlets and traditional print media along the way, and suggesting user-generated content may be just as insidious at feeding women’s feelings of inadequacy:
“Despite there being a large body of research around self-image, social comparison and media images of women, we haven’t yet seen meaningful research addressing how social media, blogging, or text-based media influence women’s self-perceptions. There has been far more focus on social media behavior, such as behavior of youth on social networks and how this affects self-esteem. But I have not seen any research on social comparison effects of lifestyle blogging,” says San Francisco-based psychologist Dr. Keely Kolmes.
Dr. Kolmes mentions blogs, which, in addition to social media, are another aspect of digital participation in which women outpace men and where the women with the largest audiences are not writing about politics or science, but posting personal anecdotes or marketing their own lifestyle brands [...] packaged in sepia-tinted Instagram photos, scrawling font and the language of Oprah style empowerment – "You too can live your best life and mirroring mine is a good place to start" is the implicit message. But dissent is springing up and detractors are becoming quicker to call out such bloggers on content that they believe is less instructional and more self-aggrandizing and narcissistic.
I’m not a scientist, but I can assert with some degree of assurance that yes, these sites are influencing women’s self-perceptions, and yes, sometimes they are doing so in negative ways. Yet the urge to compare ourselves is not unique to women, nor is it new to the social internet -- it is a central facet of American culture, if not human psychology as a whole.
Social comparison theory first arose as a concept in the mid-1950s, long before there was an internet to inspire women to wonder about the true cleanliness of their washing machines or whether their parenting techniques were going to leave their kids with massive abandonment issues. The idea has gone through lots of changes since then, but the basic thrust is the same: people have a habit of comparing themselves to other people, and attempting to derive information about themselves from that comparison.
Social comparison is thought to happen in two flavors: downward and upward. In downward social comparison, we look at people we perceive to be worse off than we are, or who embody aspects of ourselves that we dislike, and we use that assessment to distance or dissociate ourselves from these things. A mom who sees a slovenly and haggard woman grocery-shopping with three unruly kids might feel a burst of superiority in the sudden assurance that at least she isn’t so bad off -- even if, sometimes, she is. Downward comparisons give us a chance to exorcise our own insecurities on someone else via psychological scapegoating.
Taking this idea online, one could argue that the whole idea of “hatefollowing” -- in which a person reads another person’s Twitter or blog or whatever not because they enjoy it, but because they derive satisfaction from hating on it, even privately -- is another variety of downward social comparison. I know when I’ve indulged in hatefollowing, it’s been about feeling that revulsion for what I perceive to be my worst faults and failures -- pretentiousness, awkwardness, a propensity toward overanalysis -- and pushing it away on someone else.
Upward social comparisons go the other way around. In a pure sense, upward comparisons should lead us to associate ourselves with the positive things we see in another person -- someone who is successful, or conventionally attractive -- and inspire optimism and improved self-assessment. Ideally, in my case, this would mean hanging out with a bunch of brilliant writers would make me feel like I am also kinda a brilliant writer.
Very often in women, however, upward comparisons do not result in our feeling better about ourselves, but instead cultivate a sort of aspirational despair that anyone who’s read fashion magazines for any portion of her life has likely experienced, however fleetingly. Women are also prone to making upward comparisons with unrealistic or impossible ideals, such as faux photoshopped beauty, and are more likely to see the most perfectly successful of individuals (the prettiest, the smartest, the most professionally together) as “normal,” while the woman making the comparison sees herself as lagging far behind the herd.
Of course, this is all a very rough, pop-psychology-friendly outline of a theory that is far more complex. Regardless, social comparison is not unique to the internet, and even if the internet is making it easier for us to do, it’s short-sighted to blame Pinterest or Facebook for causing women to feel dissatisfied with their lives. After all, women are conditioned to feel dissatisfied with themselves -- their bodies, their homes, their lifestyles -- virtually from childhood, and it’s not because they’re reading Cosmopolitan from birth; they learn it because this dissatisfaction is part of growing up culturally female.
What we forget is that social media is not an all-seeing eye. We choose the things that we share. Indeed, this is partly why social media is so seductive -- it gives us the opportunity not only to aspire to the perfected ideals others promote, but it also enables us to craft our own faux personas, to portray our own lives with an intoxicating degree of control.
I might tweet a picture of the glorious plate of sushi I have for dinner one night, but I might not show the depressing kitchen-sink salad of partly-wilted spinach and bruised tomatoes I needed to use up the night before, made in desperation at 9pm because I forgot to eat dinner before that. I can show you the three square feet of kitchen I cleaned to photograph a recipe, but there is no way I am putting my haircolor-stained shower on the internet. Or, I can tell you about selling the audio rights to my book, but conveniently leave out the three nights of insomniac self-doubt that happened afterward.
If anything, social media has complicated our natural urge to compare by making it so that we are now also competing with ourselves -- or at least with the version of ourselves that we post online, in carefully curated Instagram feeds, Facebook walls and Pinterest boards, creating space for us to compare our real lives with the augmented and edited lives we document, the ideals we want to identify with, all the while rendering the stuff we don’t say or photograph or otherwise share into a secret world, even a shameful one.
As a culture, we don’t much value the idea of contentment, of finding peace and happiness with what we have, but instead chronically place our hopes on getting what we want, someday, even when doing so costs us our happiness right now. I’m not suggesting we stop liking pretty things, or stop aspiring to be better (or cleaner, or smarter, or more fiscally responsible) people. I’m just saying maybe we can be a little more balanced, and can learn to spend less effort and focus on aspiring to perfection and more on learning to be self-compassionate, to forgive ourselves our inadequacies, and to love our real lives -- messy, complicated, unpredictable -- as much as we love the beautiful fantasy worlds we dream about.
Follow Lesley on Twitter and she'll boost your self esteem on a regular basis. At minimum, she'll show you lots of cat pictures.