Author: Erika Hirsch, MFT – July 11, 2011
“I was on Facebook last night, and now I feel so frustrated, it seems like everyone else has their life together but me”. As a therapist in the age of social media, these kinds of statements are heard frequently in my office. Most of us take part in social media, like Facebook, for many good reasons. We can keep in touch with relatives and friends all over the world, we can stay updated with causes and organizations that we find meaningful, we can reconnect with old friends and meet new people with similar interests as our own, and we can share milestones. There have been many questions raised about using Facebook, some psychologists worry that increased time online leads to social isolation, or overstimulation and a decreased ability to focus. I think that one overlooked question is related to something more personal: Why does Facebook make us feel bad about ourselves? Why can a half hour on Facebook result in hours or days of us berating ourselves for the life choices we made, or make us feel depressed about what we are not accomplishing? I thought Facebook was supposed to be enjoyable… what happened?
I think we need to look at the significance of social comparison in order to address this growing problem. Social Psychologist Leon Festinger developed the Social Comparison Theory that was revolutionary in the 1950s and is still highly relevant today. His theory states that humans have a significant internal drive to look for outside images in order to evaluate their own abilities and opinions. We look to these images provided by others to be realistic and obtainable, which means that even if an image is idealized, we interpret them as obtainable, which can lead to emotional responses. We are programmed to look at what others are doing and then evaluate ourselves to see if we “measure up”. Facebook, with constant status updates and endless photos being uploaded multiple times per day, is providing us social comparison opportunities on steroids. It can become a very legitimate and powerful source of stress, leading to feelings of guilt, frustration, and it can bring up anxiety-provoking questions about ourselves: “Why can’t I spend the summer backpacking in southeast Asia? How on Earth did my high school boyfriend manage to become a CEO at age 25 and I’m still figuring out what do to with my life at 35? Why can’t I train my cat to play the piano? I wish I could afford to buy a new home, will I ever be financially stable enough to do that? Everyone is posting pictures of their new babies, is something wrong with me that I don’t want to have a baby yet but all of my friends do? Am I behind???”.
Facebook is a forum for us to carefully choose what images we put out there into the world. Most people tend to choose the “best” images to post; the funniest moments, the most flattering portraits, the most interesting updates. It is entirely unrealistic for us to see a Facebook profile and to assume that the person behind it is really living an idealistic or perfect life. Very few people are posting photos of their kids screaming while in line at the grocery store, or photos of themselves getting into fights with their partners, or status updates that talk about getting laid off and the panic of not knowing what to do next. I believe it is important to see social media for what it is, and not use it as a tool to evaluate our lives to see if we are “measuring up” or not. The next time you find yourself comparing yourself to friends on Facebook, acknowledge that your response is understandable and normal, but it is not a valid reason to be hard on yourself or feel guilty for your life decisions. Try logging off of Facebook for a day and give yourself permission to focus on yourself without comparing yourself to others. It can be a surprisingly positive break.
Festinger, Leon. 1954. A theory of social comparison processes. Human Relations 7(2): 117-140