The green-eyed monster can feel awful, and sometimes time spent online can bring it on intensely. In fact, recent research has shown that social media use can be associated with depression most strongly when envy is involved. Given that the polished and calculated images we see online may be far from reality, we are frequently bombarded with distorted pictures of other people's lives: posed perfection that make us tempted to compare our own lives to an ideal that doesn't really exist. If you find that your time on social media is making you feel worse about your own life, take that seriously. Here are seven tips to protect yourself.
1) Stop the automatic saturation. If you have Facebook or other social media applications installed on your phone to the point where you go to them almost mindlessly with any free moment you have (stoplights, anyone?), you've got to consciously break the cycle. The habit can be so automatic that you are bombarding your ego without even realizing what you're doing. Create a barrier or two to getting onto social media—having to log in from the Internet rather than automatically being taken there through an app, for instance—to make sure that when you enter the social media world, you are at least doing it mindfully and proactively, rather than passively, where you'll be more vulnerable to hits you didn't actively choose in the first place.
2) Identify and block your specific triggers. Are there certain people in your newsfeed who routinely make you feel worse about yourself? Do you have certain vulnerabilities—feelings about your body, your looks, your job, your health, your kids, your house, your income—that you are prone to feeling particularly bad about when comparing yourself to others? The more specifics you can figure out, the better. Ideally, you can eventually do some work on those insecurities. But in the meantime, hiding specific people from your newsfeed can help keep the scabs from constantly being picked.
3) Do a gratitude meditation. Studies indicate that something as simple as a few minutes of focusing on what you have to be grateful for—some people incorporate this into a gratitude meditation—can give you a measurable improvement in mood, and even help ward off depression. And what better time to do this then when you are feeling sorry for yourself because you don't seem to be thin enough or rich enough to prance around in a bikini on the island of St. Bart's?
4) Clarify your goals. Sometimes, we feel most jealous when others seem to have it all together and are moving forward in ways that we feel stuck. If someone's promotion makes you all too conscious of the fact that you are in a dead-end job, you can feel more autonomous and optimistic by taking control. Make a plan, short-term and long-term, for climbing out. The same could be said for any part of your life that you feel is not moving the way it should. You will be less vulnerable to feeling bad about someone else's progress if you can map out and visualize your own.
5) Stop the comparison calculation. It's easy to view yourself as a cretin if your best friend is a supermodel, just like any of our traits become more pronounced when we are assessing ourselves only in comparison to others. Do what you can to make yourself aware of how invalid this calculation is when it comes up in the moment. Does your income become suddenly less sufficient simply because the Sultan of Brunei exists? Of course not. Just like nothing in your life is somehow less real or valuable in its own right just because someone out there lives differently. Catch yourself making these comparisons, and learn to combat them by reminding yourself of the presence of what exists within your life—rather than the absence of what doesn't.
6) Choose live action. There are many benefits of keeping in touch online—and certainly people can develop relationships that feel just as real as in-person ones. Nonetheless, if you start feeling down and trapped in a negative feedback loop of staring at other people's two-dimensional, pixelated lives, getting back into the three-dimensional mode can be helpful. Have coffee with somebody, and let the point be driven home that their hair isn't as perfect as it looks in photos. Have a real-life playdate and remind yourself that kids have many antics that can be far from picture- perfect and won't make the cut for their parents' Facebook pages. Seek out someone's in-person laugh—even just via a phone call—and take comfort that real life is messier, but often more truly beautiful, than what you see on a screen.
7) Help others. Research shows that we get a mood boost from helping others. Not only can these emotional effects help lift us out of a negative envy-related mood, but the cognitive effects of seeing others who have it worse than we do can help remind us what we have to be grateful for. Plus, it's a nice reality check to put us in our place when we start thinking that our lives are so bad just because just because we can't afford that kitchen renovation.
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Andrea Bonior, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist and media commentator. She is the author of the upcoming book Psychology: Essential Thinkers, Classic Theories, and How They Inform Your World, and The Friendship Fix, and Baggage Check, the longtime mental health column in the Washington Post Express. She serves on the faculty of Georgetown University. Follow her on Facebook or Twitter.
Photo credit: Mike Mozart (Flickr Creative Commons)