The Comparison Trap: Instagram vs Reality

In a world where followers and likes can seemingly determine a person’s worth, it has become all too easy to compare yourself and your life to everything on Instagram. This notion may sound comical and absurd, but we’re all guilty of indulging in social comparison to some extent.

Have you ever spent hours scrolling on Instagram and felt sad or even empty afterwards? According to Los Angeles-based psychotherapist Sara Bayles, the effects don’t necessarily stop there. “Shame, depression, anxiety, and a lowered sense of self can all be a result of social comparison and in turn, self-objectification.” We’ve all been there – mindless scrolling turns into comparing our “boring” lives to everyone else’s “highlight reels”. Suddenly, everyone seems happier, prettier, and more successful than you. Their vacations and weekends are enviable and feel unattainable, and they have a “perfect” relationship with their significant other that you wish you had.

“Because people, and even brands, are more likely to showcase peak experiences and flattering news about themselves, a narrow, distorted slice of reality is displayed on social media,” Sara explains. She goes on to say that this slice of reality creates a tsunami effect of excess information leading viewers to feel deficient and discouraged.

It’s a trap we can fall into every day.

Don’t get us wrong, there are a lot of positive things about social media. Social media has made the world more accessible: from keeping tabs on old friends and sharing your cute selfies, to the shameless stalking of an ex. Along with accessibility, measuring yourself against others, in some ways, can be helpful. Following along with the achievements of others can often inspire and motivate us. For example, perhaps you’ve felt stuck in a pattern of unhealthy eating. Seeing a popular influencer crafting a beautiful, nutritious salad or completing a half-marathon might be just what you needed to light a fire and make a change!

What hurts us the most is when we compare ourselves to others online to the point of feeling inferior and inadequate. But this is nothing new, and social media hasn’t created it. In fact, Sara describes “social comparison theory,” an idea that dates back to the 1950s. “We make comparisons as a way of evaluating ourselves; this is how we develop an understanding of who we are and what our strengths and limitations are.” So how do we manage the inevitability to compare on social in a way that’s more helpful than hurtful?

Here are a few tips to help you out:

  1. Take a break. Delete Instagram, deactivate your account for a period of time, or assign “social media free” days to your calendar.
  2. Mute or unfollow accounts that make you feel bad, rather than inspired.
  3. Download apps like Moment or StayFocused that tally how much time you spend online and limit accordingly.

Ultimately it’s how we use social media that has the greatest bearing on how it makes us feel. Even if you practice healthy Instagram behavior, comparison – whether upward or downward – is inevitable. The greatest protection and the best way to pull yourself out of the trap is to develop and maintain a secure sense of self.