Social Media: The Best Way to Feel Worse
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Social Media: The Best Way to Feel Worse


Even if you’ve never heard the phrase “compare and despair,” you’re still probably doing it. Everywhere we look, there’s someone more successful than we are, someone prettier, thinner, having more fun—at least that’s how it seems, especially when we log in to our favorite social media. If reality were anything like my Facebook feed, it would consist of almost nothing but weddings. Of course we all know that the aftermath of weddings—aka marriage—is rarely pretty enough for Instagram, no matter what filter you use. And even in those wedding albums themselves, we don’t see the hole left by the uninvited alcoholic aunt, or the cancer in the bones of the bride’s father as he smiles through the nausea of chemo. Are we, as Elle’s Glynnis MacNicol suggests, cropping out the sadness from our lives?

The Dopamine Boost of “Likes”

In her moving and oh-so-relatable essay, MacNicol discusses the disconnect between the pain of caring for her ailing mother and the Internet’s pressure to present a “like”-able image. It’s “a tale of two selves”: the bright, successful, on-the-go mask we don for social media, and the often much more depressing reality. It’s our digital selves that we (subconsciously) hope will cause our friends and family to feel the same envy that we feel scrolling through their endless snapshots of cherubic toddlers and Costa Rican ecotourism. We desperately crave “likes,” the new millennium’s stamp of approval. And nobody thirsts for approval quite like addicts.

In recovery, it can be hard to stomach our non-sober friends’ endless photostreams of wine-tasting in the park. We’ve all had moments where we scroll through their Pinterest-perfect lives and felt the foundations of our sobriety tremble. Everyone is drinking. Everyone is happy. Or so it seems. Rarely do we consider the possibility that many of them are doing the same thing we were—heavy editing. After all, when our real lives have become unmanageable, the gulf between our smiling avatars and the bodies we inhabit only gets wider.

Difficult to Discern Reality

A Norwegian short film entitled What’s On Your Mind? illustrates this disparity brilliantly. The film takes us into the life of down-and-out Scott as he compares his way to despair. In order to keep up with the shining smiles of his newsfeed (and rack up validating “likes”), Scott’s status updates range from distortions to outright lies. The film’s suggestion that our friends are all lying to us is provocative, at once disturbing and perversely reassuring. I mean, if everybody else’s lives aren’t so great after all, we can resent them a little bit less.

I remember when I accepted a Facebook friend request from my sponsor. To my surprise, I felt self-conscious—not because she would see the real me, whom she already knew from our early step work, but because she would now see the fake me, too. I browsed through my dozens of photos, stunned by how often I held a drink in my hand. Even some of my very favorite pictures of myself are tainted by beer bottles. Anyone looking through them would know I drank a lot, but they wouldn’t necessarily know I had a problem. They look just like all my normie friends’ celebration images—happy.

The Unfiltered Picture

Of course, that’s because I don’t have the photos of the next 12 hours. There’s no picture of me driving to work at 2 pm with a trash can between my legs in case I had to vomit, no snapshot to commemorate the time I puked in my student’s bathroom or out the window of my boyfriend’s Prius or halfway across my friends’ kitchen with zero warning. I really missed an opportunity: an entire photo album called “Vomit” would have made a fantastic statement about social media. Imagine re-captioning each jubilant party photo with its decidedly un-“like”-able consequences. Lost credit card. Panic attack. Parking ticket. Bad sex. Ruined friendship. Ruined car. Binge eating. Binge shopping. Crying. [Footage Not Found].

Of course, when you get too comfortable with your drinking problem, little hints of desperation can slip through the cracks in the mask. One Labor Day, I posted one of those clever illustrated quotes I’d been saving for the occasion: “If whiskey interferes with your business, give up your business. No use trying to do two things at once.” Though I thought this was terribly witty, it didn’t get the rousing reception I’d hoped for. The handful of upturned thumbs came mostly from my diehard drinking buddies or people too far removed from my life to find it troubling. For the rest of my friends, maybe it was a little too accurate, given that I’d recently started a business that was constantly dueling the Glenlivet for my attentions. Meanwhile I was so deep into denial that I couldn’t see how grim the joke-that-was-not-a-joke really looked.

Separating the Wheat from the Chaff

Recovery has meant a lot less denial, and certainly a lot less vomit. But it doesn’t free us from the pressure to present a happy, successful, interesting face to our hordes of followers. Because when the hero of What’s On Your Mind? finally posts the truth about how miserable he is, his friends respond in true fair-weather fashion by blocking him.

When someone does open up and drop a big downer onto your news feed—a loved one passed, a job lost, an engagement severed—it always feels awkward. A simple “Hug” emoticon next to the thumbs-up sign could suit so many situations—not just outright loss, but also more complex emotions like those captured in MacNicol’s bittersweet photo of her ailing mother modeling an oversized fur coat. But perhaps that’s more nuanced intimacy than social media can handle. At least it’s more than most of us want to cope with when we log in and begin our voyeuristic scrolling.

An Upside to the Facade

At this point, it’s impossible to expect anybody to show up to the digital party unmasked and unfiltered. Who would even want that? I already hear enough about what everyone and their dogs ate for dinner. I don’t need to see them throw it up too. Maybe our best bet is to just practice keeping our online lives in perspective. From a certain angle, collecting all the smiles and sunsets in one place doesn’t seem like such a terrible idea. Facebook could become a giant collective scrapbook of gratitude, so long as we remember that what we’re seeing doesn’t reflect our friends’ lives any more completely than ours do. Maybe the way to fight comparing and despairing is to start really sharing—not necessarily over the Internet, but on the phone, in the rooms, in our real lives.

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About Author

Erica Larsen AKA Eren Harris blogs at Whitney Calls and Clean Bright Day. Their writing has also been published on Salon, Selfish, Violet Rising and YourTango. They live in Los Angeles with their husband and their enormous cat.