The latest research is showing strong ties between social media use, anxiety and depression. One of the reasons for this is the inevitable self-comparison that goes along with scrolling through other people’s lives. In this piece, Dr Natalie Raiher discusses how to make yourself more resilient to a hashtagged society.

We all compare ourselves with others – it’s our way of checking that we’re doing ok, that we’re not falling behind or about to be ejected from the tribe for a massive faux pas. From an evolutionary perspective, human beings have survived because of our ability to form and maintain social bonds. These are formed first with our caregivers and later with our peers. As babies, our very lives depend on these relationships and their continuity. We take a lot longer than other animals to be able to look after ourselves in the world and we need a group for optimal chances of survival.

One of the ways we learn to maintain these vital relationships is to anticipate what might get us this love, attention or reward from others. From a young age we learn that fitting in is a matter of life or death, and that a connection with others is often conditional. In this way, comparison and competition go hand in hand. Not only are we checking that we’re still accepted and acceptable, but we’re also checking that we’re doing better than our siblings or peers so that we can get more of the attention or reward. There is this sense that there is a scarcity to human connection and love. In some ways, there is a reality to this – a caregiver can’t always attend to each child equally, not everyone is invited to everything, not everyone can win a prize.

social media

Our socio-cultural environment reflects this. We live in social spaces where, despite ideas of liberalism and personal freedom, we actually have very rigid norms about what it means to be a man, or a woman, about what it means to be successful and of worth. Our society is structured around competition and compliance. Just think of the way achievement is determined in the schooling system or in the places we work.

We are primed to compare ourselves with others. It’s no great surprise that as a result, we can start to develop an externally defined sense of worth. This is the idea that our value is dependent on our performance and moreover, in outperforming our peers. This could be anything from school, to sport, to looks, to lifestyle. If we manage to meet these impossible norms even for a bit, we feel good, but like an adrenalin rush, the comfort is short-lived. We need to carry on meeting them to feel good and this is how perfectionism is maintained and this can lead to burnout.

If we don’t meet these norms, over time it can be devastating, even more so if we’ve managed to meet them for a while and then stop meeting them. We can feel that we’re failing and that our value as a human being has been compromised because we aren’t a size 8, or a CEO, or married or whatever. Deriving self-worth through external performance is a dicey business because there is always someone smarter, or prettier, or richer, or with more friends.

Social media has proliferated these norms and expectations through constantly available images and updates. It has taken our tendency to compete, compare and define value through external measures to a whole new level. Nobody posts about the virtues of a mediocre life. It ups the psychological ante so to speak, and gives us more fodder for self-criticism, for the pursuit of perfectionism and thus, to always find ourselves falling short. Usually, we don’t come out on the winning side of any self-comparison. To paraphrase Freud, self-comparison functions like a suicide – it kills off our sense of ourselves.

In my clinic, I often find that people use social media almost like an act of self harm: trawling through images of people they perceive are doing better than themselves over and over again. This behaviour can become a maintaining factor in depression and low self-esteem.

The other side of it, though, is what we learn to do with that comparison and just how far we’re willing to sacrifice our own needs and identities for what is deemed to be preferable. In other words, how far we’re willing to let the idea of another person determine who we are. The key shift is to start defining an internal sense of value. This is not only more stable than any external reward, it is also more self-determined: it is premised on who we are not what we do (or rather what we do for others’ approval). This is the therapeutic task. People often come for therapy because they feel sad or depressed, or unable to live up to an idea of what they think they should be. We have to start taking back control of our lives: asking who decided that you should be this way or that way, or that this was the version of a woman or a man you had to be. We ask questions like what the person enjoys, what they think gives them value as a human being. Obviously this is a difficult task, and usually a lifelong project.

This article was quoted in The Metro. Read more here.