We’ve all been there, scrolling through social media late at night when sleep won’t come, comparing our darkest hours with a stranger’s highlight reel.
It’s usually when we’re most vulnerable that comparison attacks, making whatever we’re going through seem all the worse. As someone who lives with a mental illness, I know that negative comparison can compound feelings of hopelessness and inadequacy. It doesn’t necessarily trigger an episode but when I’m unwell, comparison makes things considerably more difficult.
I was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder five years ago when I was 30. I was initially ashamed of my illness, assuming that it was a sign of weakness and personal failure. I constantly compared myself to the people around me who appeared to be getting on with life without a hitch, having careers, relationships and social lives free from mania and debilitating depression. When I was feeling particularly sadistic, I would pick up my phone or my laptop and scroll through the endless pictures of other people’s apparent joy and success. The mentally unwell voice insists that there is a finite amount of happiness available and since it’s been allocated to other people, that my professional and personal fulfilment is just not possible. This seems absurd in the cold light of day, but mental illness is a malignant liar, skilled at convincing its prey that those spiralling thoughts are actually facts. When I become depressed, there is a narrative the replays over and over in my mind, and comparison seems to prove my darkest fears. It’s like being earwormed by a terrible song; even though I know the voice is lying to me, it’s really hard to shut it up.
Most of us only share a minuscule percentage of ourselves online and we never see the blood, sweat and tears that may have gone into even the smallest triumph.
I now make it my business to talk openly about mental health. I believe that by being candid will normalise mental illness and we’ll finally realise that mental health is just like any other aspect of wellness. Being ashamed of a mental illness is as nonsensical as being embarrassed by asthma or high blood pressure. Stigma exacerbates shame, which stops us from asking for help and keeps us believing we should be able to ‘just pull ourselves together’. In a world where all we see are images of our peers living the apparent high life, it’s no wonder that mental illness is still a taboo.
So how can we move forward in a world that is so obsessed with putting on a good front? What techniques can we use to unshackle ourselves from comparison and flourish in the lives we have, built around our own definition of success? I’m not a doctor and the advice I have to offer is based in my own experiences, but hopefully I have some suggestions that will be useful.
Unless you go completely off grid, it’s hard to avoid social media altogether. However, there are some brilliant movements online that promote positive messages. Following the right people can make you feel better about yourself but also connect you with communities of like-minded people. That’s how I came across Lucy Sheridan, her Youtube videos and Instagram posts are so comforting and reassuring, if I was having a bit of a wobble. I’d look to her content to make me feel a bit better.
If there are accounts in your feed that make you feel rubbish about yourself, just un- follow them. I’ve done this with people I’m quite close to, not because of them, but because of how their social media presence triggers me. Un-following people has become something of a taboo, as it suggests the termination of a relationship. However, most people are so wrapped up in their own lives they probably won’t notice. If they do, try not to worry about their response – your self-care is more important.
It’s also helpful to give yourself a digital detox from time to time. I try to do this for one weekend a month. That down time can be a good opportunity to re-focus on your own goals and write down what it is you actually want to achieve. It’s all to easy to look at someone else’s success and assume that you want the same thing, when in reality that might not be your dream anymore.
Remember that you are not alone. Whatever you are going through, I can guarantee that there is someone else managing something similar. Social media can be wonderful for finding others who are coping with the same dilemmas as you.
Lastly, go easy on yourself. Modern life can be really hard; the constant flow of information we’re continually force-fed is enough to drive anyone to distraction. There are so many opportunities in the day for us to feel crappy about ourselves. Have compassion for your own losses and pain, try to be your own best friend. When you focus on self-care, comparison looses it’s sting because you’re giving yourself the best chance to thrive and enjoy the blessings in your own life.