Compare And Despair

Why social media is making you compare and despair

The beloved 26thpresident of the United States, Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt, prophetically pronounced: “Comparison is the thief of joy.” He uttered these words more than a hundred years ago, and yet this sentiment applies more than ever to life in the 21stcentury. This age-old problem has been our torment since we could walk upright. However, the advent of globalisation and connectivity through social media platforms, as well as the absence or obsolescence of god in our lives, has intensified the obsession with “me”. The cost of constant comparing is despair as we lose sight of ourselves.

Good, better, best

From the moment you’re born, you’re in the race of your life. While parents think their baby is the most beautiful and clearly the brightest cherub ever, inadvertently they are setting their child up for a life based on comparison. Just as their own parents did with them. It’s in their genes and rightly or wrongly we have an innate drive to view or assess ourselves through the perceived lens of others.

In 1954, American social psychologist Leon Festinger developed the Social Comparison Theory. Essentially, this is an internal ratings system where we continually benchmark ourselves against others. We evaluate our own social and personal worth based on how we compare with peers and those we admire. We use our own criteria for the traits we’re assessing but this determination is usually based on socially acceptable norms. For instance, rating your own level of attractiveness is based on what the contemporary view is on beauty and we have a range of yardsticks from friends, trending Instagrammers to celebrities in order to make this evaluation.

When we upwardly compare, we can become overwhelmed and undermined by our own sense of inadequacy, resulting in never feeling good enough.

Drilling into the theory, Festinger devised two scales to measure where we sit on the totem pole: upward comparison is when we compare ourselves with those we deem as better than us and conversely downward comparison is of course when we come out as the victors. Both processes can be helpful and even inspiring (to improve ourselves) but if, for instance, we have low self-esteem, our assessment criteria can be skewed and we can underestimate our own value. In this headspace, when we upwardly compare, we can become overwhelmed and undermined by our own sense of inadequacy, resulting in us never feeling good enough. Conversely, when we have an inflated sense of self and a lack of self-awareness, we may over-estimate our currency in a particular area and then fall short when put to the test. Comparing ourselves is fraught with all sorts of issues, including faulty thinking about our own self-concept, so we have to find that balance where we re-affirm our values, beliefs and attitudes.

In effect, our personal currency becomes commoditised and this threatens self-acceptance and diminishes self-compassion. The famous 20thcentury existential philosopher and writer, Jean-Paul Sartre, said “hell is other people” and he meant that our lives are lived in the gaze and at times at the will of others. As a result we respond to that gaze, risking losing ourselves and all that we hold dear to us. How often have we forfeited living our true lives in order to “belong” or to fit in? Conforming in this way inevitably causes great distress and incongruences within us. But it can also be said that we operate under our own scrutiny, judging ourselves harshly. In this case, hell is not other people, but ourselves.

Comparison compromises your values

While comparing may be a primal drive, the way our society is set up doesn’t help things. We may, in theory, all be born equal and accept the proposition that in a democracy we all have a chance to make our own success. But in reality things are not as they purport to be. In his famous sociological opus, Democracy in America, French diplomat and political scientist Alexis De Tocqueville was quite enamoured with this new egalitarian society that was America in the early 19thcentury. Unlike the aristocratic European system, where class determined wealth and status and was rigidly fixed and perpetual, upward mobility was a real possibility in this new world based on hard work and enterprise. Now this was a liberating and exciting notion for those who had nous, ability, luck and good health, but it triggered a different kind of problem that persists today.

Knowing that you could better yourself, remaining poor or disenfranchised, made those new Americans feel worse than their French counterparts who stoically accepted their lot in life. This was the life they were born into and where they would remain until the end. A maid in a baron’s home knew her station and didn’t expect more. Yearning for a different life was not up for consideration. However, this was not the case in America and the first generation of “wannabes” was spawned. Envy, shame and self-reproach made up the myriad negative feelings experienced and today we know exactly what that feels like.

Contemporary society is based on this democratic ideal and we wouldn’t swap it for the restrictive French model. But it remains that we are very vulnerable to the perils of comparison. We are told endlessly, especially by libertarians or conservative political parties, that social mobility and wealth creation is accessible for all but is this really the case?

The easy answer is to get off Facebook, Instagram and all the other portals which portray a life that is seemingly inaccessible.

For those born into adverse or socially disadvantaged conditions, the odds are stacked against them. Many are resigned to press their proverbial noses at the windows of those living in lush and luxe surrounds, as their efforts remain unrewarded. For those unfortunate people, comparing gives rise to despair, and they live in the knowledge feeling they are the losers in life. They are held to account by a society where they had no part in setting up the rules. We live in a society that prizes success and wealth, rewarding achievers with respect and validation. But for those who don’t make the cut they face exclusion and scorn. As the saying goes, to the victor go the spoils.

Sadly, this isn’t a society that celebrates values such as inclusion and equity. In Scandinavian countries there are no private schools — all are public and everyone has access to universal affordable childcare and healthcare systems. So, as much as is possible, with a level playing field right from the start, Scandinavian countries embody values that inform the populace to consider their own roles in society. Citizens are more prone to act for the collective good rather than for individual gain. They wear high taxes so that distribution is across the board. Year on year, these countries are rated highly for happiness and their people don’t feel they’re missing out or are being left behind. As a result, they are less likely to compare their car or house with their neighbour and are more likely to reflect on their own inner lives and values.

The social media conspiracy

In 2012, 50 per cent of all Americans owned a smartphone. And in surpassing the halfway mark, a seismic shift occurred in the behaviour of Americans and those in other western countries where the take up of this technology was rampant, namely Australia. US psychologist, Dr Jean Twenge, author of iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy–and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood, contends that when the smartphone entered the marketplace in 2007, those born between 1995 and 2012, (whom she terms as “iGen”), became sitting ducks for those technology platforms lying in wake to hijack the minds and manipulate the emotions of this vulnerable cohort.

Her extensive research shows that with the advent of smartphone usage by iGenkids, depression and loneliness spiked considerably while happiness and life satisfaction plummeted. It also showed that face-to-face time with friends had decreased and more children and teens were spending copious amounts of time alone (usually in their bedrooms) staring into their screens. It is no surprise that suicide rates also increased. The continual barrage of comparative digital feedback combined with a lack of digital literacy meant, and this is as much relevant today, that young people felt under siege from both their peers, their online communities as well as celebrities. Social media has raised the bar in our own critical self-assessment and for young people who may not have the discernment to evaluate the feedback or realise that much of it is highly edited and curated, are particular vulnerable.

They are following glamorous Instagrammers and influencers on a variety of platforms but they are also being penalised and judged by those who comment on their posts and feeds. This feedback loop sets up an impossible measure where they can never keep up, look good enough, be popular or cool enough. Kids are continually projecting images of themselves to gain cut through, to be noticed and then validated or “liked”.

Dr Twenge contends that the twin rise of social media and smartphones has meant that this generation is “on the brink of a mental health crisis”. And what is staggering is the finding that all screen activities are linked to less happiness, whereas all non-screen activities are linked to greater happiness.

The cost of comparison

The smartphone has almost become an appendage or body part. People have cited that when they don’t have their phone within reach, they feel naked or feel they have a missing limb. This addiction has gone under the radar unlike smoking, drinking and drugs but its effects are just as deleterious and potentially even life threatening.

Screen time at this level of intensity squeezes out the possibility of self-regard and reflection and also can lessen our quality of sleep. Tunnel vision ensues as the interface constantly has the user in its tractor beam. The backlit screen has its owner in a trance and fingers pulsate and eyes dilate as it holds the owner in its gaze. In fact, the servant has become the master who is being held captive. Willingly.

When you run your own race, you demand the best from yourself without the pressure of competing against anyone else.

While this young generation has not lived in a time where there wasn’t the internet or social media, those who inhabit other generational time zones whether it is X, Y or even millennials are also susceptible to the shiny screen. In fact, the Gen X demographic contains prolific users and as a result of falling prey to online comparisons we are seeing dangerous, risky and aberrant behaviour and choices. More people experience anxiety, drink to cope and potentially resort to cosmetic enhancements and dabble in promiscuity or covert behaviour. As we escape into the digital space, we’re becoming increasingly disconnected with the actual people in our lives. Wanting to remain relevant and youthful, the assault of images showing how much better, prettier, skinnier or more successful we can be means we feel inadequate and less confident in our skin. In short, social media isn’t good for mental health and wellbeing.

The antidote to feeling deflated and despondent seems like a no-brainer. The easy answer is to get off Facebook, Instagram and all the other portals which portray a life that is seemingly inaccessible. What is on show is the highlight reel of other people’s lives. This is a false reflection, an amplified projection of life and, in the end, just cyber smoke and mirrors. But logging off or deleting accounts is not that easy.

You have to enforce digital discipline and you need to heavily edit what you view. Unlike any other age in history, this technology is all pervasive. This little mobile device that is styled so beautifully is the devil in disguise.

We have inadvertently become addicted to the comparison feedback loop and are continually measuring our own innate value, our belief systems and attitudes based on arbitrary, unfiltered forces. The right of entry to these platforms means we tick the terms and conditions box of the platform provider and surrender all control and autonomy. Digital cookies mine your personal data and then you are inundated with all the ads and curated feeds that prey on your fears and weaknesses. We are puppets and the social media giants are pulling the strings. You have to make the cut if you are to win back your cyber-independence.

Instinctively we do know this is an addiction governing our wellbeing and choices. Have you noticed when you go to the movies or to a yoga class and have to turn off your mobile, there is that quiet relief that almost borders on subversion? At last you’re no longer in its vice-like grip. You’re on your own again, ironically left to your own devices ready to think and feel for yourself.

Isn’t it time to switch off your device and switch on to yourself?

Compared to me, I’m OK!

There is a deceptively simple but brilliant saying from an unknown source that speaks strongly to the power of selfhood by rejecting the power of comparison outright: “I am not beautiful like you. I am beautiful like me.

This exquisite statement is a celebration of self. It is also a statement of rebellion, saying that I will not be harnessed or subjected to the notions of what you or others regard as beautiful, smart or successful. I will define those notions for myself.

When you run your own race, you demand the best from yourself without the pressure of competing against anyone else. Comparing yourself with your best performance means that you are answerable to yourself and no one else. Freedom!

The act of being human where you inevitably compare yourself to others in order to assess your own merit is natural, but social media and smartphones have rigged the wheel. Constantly online and switched on, we have forfeited introspection and reflection to be connected.

We don’t realise that we are our own individual power source and we can connect with ourselves and others without a device. Comparing can be a very useful tool and it can be helpful and inspiring to have yardsticks so that you can objectively gauge how you’re going in a particular pursuit. The problem with social media is that it dictates to you what you should be comparing. It doesn’t tell you to compare your levels of generosity, kindness or self-compassion but rather all those extrinsic qualities that tend to calibrate your currency in social standing, attractiveness and success.

This is your life to lead and you have to live it on your terms, celebrating your talents and acknowledging your true self. The enemy of chronic comparison is wholehearted self-acceptance. The simple fact is that there is always going to be someone who will be better than you in every single way. But the one thing they can never be better at is being you. You are the best at that and when you live your life in truth and love, accepting your faults and foibles and allowing yourself to be seen regardless, then personal freedom is yours for the taking. Comparison can no longer steal your joy as you refuse to play that silly game where everyone loses.

In the immortal words of pop icon Prince, “Nothing Compares 2 U”.

Marie Rowland

Marie Rowland

Marie Rowland is a therapist in private practice on Sydney’s northern beaches helping people resolve the underlying issues that perpetuate conflict or disconnectedness so they can create meaningful and happy lives. Marie speaks at conferences, forums and community events on a variety of topics from wellbeing and positive psychology to practical philosophy.

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