Coping with Comparison
I often find myself sitting across from a client who is saying “I know I shouldn’t compare but…” as they describe their longing to be like someone or something they’ve seen on their Instagram feed. I’ve gotten in the habit of simply stating “you can’t compare” as I feel at a loss for how to help my clients navigate the complexities of comparisons in the age of social media, when I know I fall victim to it just as much as they do. Happiness is everywhere on social media and sometimes it feels like we're the only ones without it.
I find myself in this push and pull with clients because the truth is we CAN compare and in fact it is a natural impulse we have as human beings. We are social beings and learn about what to do or not to do through observing others’ behavior. We compete for the best (insert job, partner, friends, etc) because that is how we will ensure survival, procreate, make an impact, be remembered. We hope that we can provide more for our children and they will go on to do even better because we did our best. It’s truly primal stuff.
Telling my clients they “can’t compare” might actually be making them feel ashamed for engaging in this behavior that is pretty natural. The issue is that what we compare ourselves to is not reality, it is not the whole picture. When we hold ourselves to a standard that is just an edited snapshot, of course we will feel flawed for coming up short. Or maybe we find out that finally getting the perfect job, body, partner, house, or vacation, doesn’t fix everything like we thought it would.
A client (details have been changed to protect this person’s privacy) recently came in fuming about her sister’s inability to “act like an adult.” This week, she was particularly upset about the fact that her sister posted about how great things were on social media. The client knew the truth about what was actually going on in her sister’s life, and the reality was that she was far from having it all together.
A therapist light bulb went on and I thought, this is the inverse of what I typically hear. We don’t often know what is truly going on with a person unless we are in a close relationship with them. It occurred to me just how easy it is to make others believe what you want them to through social media. However, if you really know someone, it’s clear that what they are posting in that moment is not the full picture, for better or worse. Which just goes to show how fleeting a post can be.
If we knew everyone on our Instagram feeds as intimately as a close friend, sibling, or partner we’d have a better sense of what was going on behind the post and perhaps not feel as flawed that our lives weren’t as perfect. Perhaps we should all consider being more intentional about who we follow. But even when we intimately know others, the feeling of not measuring up can still creep its way in.
I draw from a therapeutic framework called DBT (Dialectical Behavioral Therapy). DBT inspires all of the content within the Prezence mobile application. One of the four pillars of DBT is Distress Tolerance. Sometimes in life, crises can happen, both big and small can increase our psychological distress. When there is not an immediate way to change the current situation causing pain, Distress Tolerances helps you cope without making things worse. A crisis could even be in the form of a quick freak out when you see yet another friend get engaged and you’ve just ended a relationship (yes I’m referring to myself, even therapists don’t always have it all together!). A skill within Distress Tolerance is called ACCEPTS. DBT loves to use acronyms, and believe it or not the second C stands for Comparisons!
Comparisons in this sense encourages you to broaden your perspective. It allows you to take a step back and look at your life with some perspective. The idea is to think about a time when you were doing worse and reflect on how far you’ve come (unless this is the worst you’ve ever felt in which case this is not the right skill at this moment). Is there another person that may be in a worse situation than you? Are your basic needs met when there might be others out there struggling to get by? The goal is not to feel guilty about what you have or think that you’ve taken things for granted, but to add a different perspective to the current emotional distress you are experiencing.
Perhaps we can use the Comparisons skill while scrolling through our feeds, since we are likely comparing anyways, why not be more mindful about how? We can start to wonder what’s behind the “everything’s perfect” posts and recognize that maybe everything isn’t as great as it seems. When was a time you posted something that made your life seem amazing, but had other stressors going on in the background? It is more than likely what you are seeing on your feed is being posted with careful intention and it is unlikely that that person truly has it all.
We can all make an effort to be more real on social media, but the truth is, social media will always be filtered. It is normal to want to put your “best” self out there when your followers will be viewing it and forming opinions about you. It’s how we change our response to what we see from others that can free us from the negative spiral that can occur.