Deep down, we all know that social media is a highlight reel, not real life — yet it's still all too easy to compare yourself to the perfectly airbrushed lives you see online. Whether it's the friend who's always posting flawless selfies or the acquaintance who seems to take the most epic vacations, the temptation to measure your life against theirs is real.
According to Rachel Hoffman, PhD, LCSW, the Chief Clinical Officer at Real, these feelings are almost universal. "It is common to compare yourself to others, no matter who you are. We all do it," she says. "Social comparison theory is the idea that individuals determine their own social and personal worth based on how they stack up against others."
Though social comparison theory applies to real-life interactions, too, it's particularly common on social media. Seeing a constant stream of photos of people living their best lives can lead to unrealistic expectations that your life should be all excitement, all the time. Dr. Hoffman says it's important to remember that "life is not a competition — your victories and wins are very different from someone else's." Each person is unique, with individual skills, talents, and personality traits that make them special. "When you are looking at social media, you end up comparing yourself to others who have completely different values, goals, and innate strengths. It's like comparing apples to oranges," she says.
Still, it can be tough to break the cycle of comparing yourself to others on social media — or even fully understand the effects it has on you — when you're used to scrolling several times a day. We spoke to Dr. Hoffman about the impact of social media on self-esteem, beauty standards, and relationships, as well as a few strategies you can use to set healthy boundaries for social media use.
Social Media and Self-Esteem
Who hasn't hurt their own feelings by staring at a celebrity's Instagram post and wondering, "Why can't I look like that?" Even though social media isn't real, the emotions it sparks certainly are. Dr. Hoffman says it's normal for social media scrolling to lead to feelings of anxiety, insecurity, sadness, loneliness, or even worthlessness.
"Engaging with comparisons based on social media can cause tremendous anxiety and what I call the negative spiral. We can move quickly through a series of negative feelings, starting with jealousy, to thinking 'my life sucks,' to thinking 'I am not worthy,'" she explains. "In these negative spiral moments, our thoughts move so quickly that it is hard to even recognize that it is happening. . . . This cycle decreases self-esteem and body esteem, and it makes it easy to see ourselves as inadequate."
This decline in self-esteem can also make it more difficult for you to feel happy with your real-life successes, Dr. Hoffman explains: "When you constantly compare, it can feel like you are never enough, which perpetuates tremendous feelings of self-doubt and imposter syndrome. It can then be hard to feel proud of the accomplishments that you do reach."
To stop the cycle of negative thoughts, Dr. Hoffman recommends practicing self-awareness about your social media use. "Is your heart racing? Are your thoughts spiraling? Are you starting to feel anxiety? Listen to yourself, and if you are responding in a harmful way, then look up and look around you," she says. That's when it's time to take a few deep breaths, set down your device, and take a tech break.
Social Media and Beauty Standards
The comparison game can be equally detrimental to your perception of your looks. "Social media creates a false sense of unrealistic expectations and creates one standard for 'beauty' based on whatever goes viral on social media," Dr. Hoffman explains. "The idea that certain images are 'perfect' is inherently the problem itself. We are taught by society, and especially social media, that certain body types, certain facial features, and certain haircuts are the semblance of beauty."
Ever-evolving beauty standards make it more and more difficult to feel beautiful in your own skin and your own body. "It makes it that much harder to feel good about yourself when you feel that you can't live up to the images you see on social media, especially when the people who have that 'perfect look' are seemingly living 'perfect lives,'" Dr. Hoffman says.
Social media is literally all about appearances, since gorgeous photos and stunning videos are almost all the user sees. "It creates this false narrative that if you look a certain way, you will also have the perfect life, and this narrative perpetuates feelings of insecurity and jealousy," Dr. Hoffman explains. "The game of 'beat the person next to you' gets that much harder when you are competing with the millions of strangers posting photos of their glamorous lives."
If you find it difficult to stop comparing yourself to the images you see on social media, Dr. Hoffman suggests turning the focus back to yourself. Think about what you like best about yourself or what you're most proud of. "Explore the many wonderful ways you show up in the world, and find tangible examples to be proud of," she says. "You are entitled to any feelings about yourself and the way you look. We all have insecurities. But the goal of this exercise is to bring yourself back to you."
Setting Boundaries With Social Media
Although social media can undoubtedly have negative effects on mental health, Dr. Hoffman says getting rid of social media entirely isn't realistic for most people. For one thing, it's not always all bad: social media can be a great way to stay in touch with friends and family, inject some humor into your day-to-day routine, or even tap into your creativity. "We need to understand the implications of social media, and most importantly you need to know how it specifically affects you," she says.
Understanding what you hope to get out of using social media can be helpful, Dr. Hoffman says. If scrolling Instagram is your go-to solution for boredom, maybe it's time to think about other ways to entertain yourself, like reading a book or working on a puzzle. If browsing TikTok helps you relax, you might try setting a time limit so you don't get sucked in too far. "Having intent gives you agency. It will help you feel like you are in control over your phone rather than it having control over you," she says.
The key thing to keep in mind is that, like any technology, social media is a tool. If it's not serving you, it might be time to reassess how you use it. "Knowing how much you depend on it can be the first step in understanding your relationship to it," Dr. Hoffman says. "You can then determine what boundaries you want to form from there."
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