Post written by: Corinne Carter, Relationship Therapist
Social media is a part of most people’s day-to-day lives, and it has many benefits: it helps us stay informed, it helps us stay connected to friends and family, it provides opportunities for networking that may not have otherwise been available, etc. At the same time, like many things in life, social media also has its risks (particularly when we engage in it mindlessly). Below are four tips for maintaining a healthy self-esteem and good mental health when using social media.
1. Stop comparing yourself to others online. When we compare ourselves to others online, what we are comparing ourselves to is not the full picture of reality but rather the carefully selected version of life that others wish to share with the world. Even when people share their difficulties on social media (e.g., breakups, job losses, etc.), we can only ever be privy to certain parts of their experience. This means that when we compare ourselves to others’ lives online, we end up comparing the full scope of our experience with only a segment of the others’. It’s like comparing apples to oranges: the results don’t say much about either fruit because they are completely different to begin with and so cannot be practically compared! As such, comparison becomes a fruitless act (pun fully intended!). Further to this point, even if we could compare ourselves to the full picture of someone else’s life, the act of comparison itself does not lead to lasting happiness and motivation but, rather, a sense that our self-worth is conditional. Theodore Roosevelt called comparison “the thief of joy” because, by its nature, comparison moves us away from practicing self-love and acceptance and, instead, invites us into a process of judgment (of self and other), which is neither motivating nor connected to long-lasting happiness. Essentially, when we judge ourselves against others, our self-worth becomes connected to a particular state of being; it becomes conditional upon achieving certain ends. This means that, even if in certain scenarios we compare ourselves to others in a positive light (e.g., “Wow, I’m doing so much better than so-and-so!), the sense of worth and accomplishment that we feel in those moments is fleeting because it’s not built upon an internal foundation of self-love. In this way, our self-esteem becomes connected to external factors, rather than internal factors, which is risky because it leaves us with less control over our own experience. As well, if we engage in a process of comparison and judgment to build ourselves up, there will inevitably be times when, by the act of comparison, we feel we don’t measure up to those around us. The act of comparison in itself can leave our self-esteem susceptible to damage at all times.
2. Connect with the meaning behind your reactions: If, in spite of your best efforts not to compare yourself against others online, you notice a twinge of judgment rising up as you scroll through your news feeds, try to be curious about the meaning behind the twinge rather than focusing on the judgment itself. For example, you’re scrolling through your Facebook news feed and you see that an acquaintance just landed a new position working in your dream job, and instantly you feel the pangs of judgment in your gut (e.g., “What does she have that I don’t? I applied to that job and never even heard back…I’m such a loser”), take a step back and ask yourself: what does it suggest about what’s important to me that I’m feeling so upset about this? Perhaps it suggests that working in a position you’re passionate about is of great importance to you, or that you value developing a competitive skill set for the industry you’re interested in. Instead of letting self-judgment take over, use it as a cue that something in the situation is connected to your underlying values and be curious about what those underlying pieces are. If you can connect with the underlying meaning of the situation, you can use that to take action and move towards what’s important to you (e.g., taking a course to develop your skills; inviting your acquaintance for coffee to pick their brain about her new position), rather than focusing on the self-judgment itself which diminishes your worth and makes motivation and action less likely.
3. Take regular breaks from social media: Make a point of taking breaks from the world of social media in order to connect with your immediate surroundings. Social media is not the enemy; it’s a great way to stay informed and in touch with loved ones and the world, both of which can support a positive self-esteem. However, because of its immediately gratifying nature (I can log online and know everything that’s happening, at the moment it happens!), as well as its ability to help us feel seen and connected to a larger community (which are basic human needs), the lure of social media is very powerful, to the point that we can become “social media obsessed” if we’re not paying close attention to our online behaviours. The danger here is that, if we’re not mindful of our relationship with social media, we can actually become disconnected from ourselves and our immediate experiences and relationships, which does not align with maintaining a positive self-esteem, as positive self-esteem requires that we practice self-awareness and build supportive relationships with others. The key here is balance. You don’t need to write off social media entirely; however, it’s important that you also prioritize time to disconnect from social media in order to reconnect with yourself and your immediate environment.
4. Get clear on your goals for social media: Ask yourself, “What do I want to get out of using social media?” For example, do you want to use social media to stay connected to friends and family? To network? Do you want to use social media as a yardstick by which to assess your life against others? By getting clear on your goals for using social media, you’ll be better able to determine when social media exposure may be impacting your stress levels and self-esteem. For example, if you’re scrolling through Facebook and suddenly notice yourself feeling stressed out or upset, you can use this as an opportunity to check in and ask yourself if your current use of Facebook is in line with your overall goals for social media (it might be time to take a break, as per tip #3!). Not only do clear goals help you stay on track with how you want to be using social media in the first place, they also help you in assessing both its benefits and limitations. For example, although social media allows you to read quick updates from friends and family (which is a passive behaviour), you will still need to make an effort to follow up with your loved ones directly (which is an active behaviour) if one of your goals in using social media is to stay connected. As well, although social media allows you to exchange updates with friends and family easily, Facebook doesn’t let you put your arms around a friend who’s going through a tough time. If you’re clear about what you want to get out of social media, you’ll be better equipped to assess its impact on you, as well as identify the ways it’s both helpful and limiting with respect to your goals.