“You never know what someone is going through. Be kind, always.” ~Unknown
A few months back I was at the park and passed a family taking what looked like holiday photos.
The mom’s hair was perfectly coifed, dad was nicely shaven and looking quite dapper, and four kids stood smiling between them—all wearing matching khaki and surprisingly clean white shirts.
I watched the khaki family out of the corner of my eye as I pushed a stroller along the gravel trail, thinking of what their holiday post might say as my baby yodeled her displeasure at facing the sun.
“Kayden is already reading!” I imagined the post beginning. “And Kenzy, Kyra, and Kourtney are now fluent in both Spanish AND Portuguese.”
I giggled to myself as I imagined how the post would go on to detail news of the family travels, the dad’s promotion, and the non-profit the mom had started to benefit children in Siberia. I was checking all the boxes of an Instagram perfect share when my thought stream was interrupted by a piercing scream and some serious commotion.
I looked over to see a khaki child being hauled out of the park’s pond by a now-not-so-dapper looking dad; mom was screaming and holding her white skirt above the mud as the other three kids threatened to join the first, who was now most definitely not clean.
The photographer didn’t seem to know what to do, backing away from the deteriorating situation with a frozen smile and look of terror.
I was far enough away that the scene didn’t involve me, but when I saw the mom break down in sobs I immediately had a stab of guilt: they aren’t some picture perfect social media fantasy, they’re just a regular family with regular emotional breakdowns like all of us have.
My own baby started screaming as I stole one more glance over my sunglasses—this is the stuff you don’t see on social media, I thought. This is the stuff between the posts.
It’s important to remember all that doesn’t get shared on social media because otherwise we forget just how very human everyone else’s lives are too.
With the advent of social sharing came the construction of an alternate universe, and the ability to create two-dimensional characters that don’t always match our actual lives.
This sounds quite devious, but it’s not really our fault because social media wasn’t designed to be a play-by-play realistic depiction of who we are. Many refer to it as the “highlight reel” for a reason: most of us aren’t documenting our every moment, as evidenced by how few pictures you see of couples fighting or people picking their noses while staring at a screen.
It’s easy to forget that the aforementioned moments are just as common in many of our lives as the smiling, witty, or thoughtful posts you likely see populating your feed (or even sharing yourself.)
Even as someone who takes great care to be as honest and transparent online as possible, I can still recognize the chasm between my online avatar and my actual human life. Sometimes I’m thoughtful but sometimes I’m crass; sometimes I’m witty and sometimes I stare at a picture for an hour trying to come up with the perfect caption that seems off-the-cuff and effortless.
And even as I recognize this gap between my online and actual self, I can forget that its true for other people as well—I have to consciously remind myself that other people (who may appear quite together and “perfect”) are also living very human, flawed, and sometimes boring lives.
I know its easy to fall into the comparison game or to simply feel isolated (especially in times like the present, when so much of our lives are lived on a two-dimensional screen.)
It’s for this reason I share with you some tips to cultivating a more positive relationship with social media—and more importantly, a healthy relationship with yourself.
1. Remember that these are highlights, not reality.
Though many of us try to be honest online about our imperfect lives, we still can’t possibly bring every fact about our reality to the screen (nor should this necessarily be the intention.) Not every emotion needs an audience, and its not always safe or necessary to bring all of our lives to the public sphere: but when scrolling through pictures of smiling faces and happy families, its important that we (the social media consumer) remember that we’re seeing a highlight reel, not the “real” reel.
2. Be yourself.
This one sounds obvious, but its easy to put so many filters or edits onto our lives that we stop feeling like our actual selves.
For example, years ago someone told me that I posted “too much” and I believed them; I decided to scale back my online presence in order to stop overwhelming the feed. I wouldn’t interact on social media for weeks at a time, trying to create this appearance of detachment and busy-ness: like I was simply too busy living life to interact online (when really I was totally still there I just didn’t want anyone else to think I was too much.)
It was at this point that I began to hate social media and the people on it, and though at first, I blamed the platforms, I realized soon after that it was my relationship to them that was making me feel terrible.
Once I realized it was because of who I thought I needed to be (or more importantly, who I thought I couldn’t be online—myself) I decided that I was done letting other people dictate who I was. I went back to interacting with friends, sharing articles I found interesting, and commenting on all the posts that my heart desired.
This lightened me up to connect with people as my “real” self, turned off the “right” people who thought I was too much, and also helped me to like social media again. I found out that the energy had been coming from within me all along.
3. Recognize the differences between you and your online persona.
Whenever I start to compare my insides to other people’s outsides, I think about all the (accidental) differences there have been in my own social media posts and my actual life.
For example, I took an amazing international trip a few years back that had me sleeping at the base of volcanos in Iceland and hiking to the top of green hillsides in Scotland.
The pictures and memories I shared were mostly smiles and beautiful landscapes—I didn’t, however, detail my huge anxiety about driving in another country, or the tense moments between a close friend and I as we crammed ourselves into a camper van and tried not to snap at one another each cold morning. These omissions weren’t devious: they were simply not the moments I chose to share with other people. Similarly, it’s important to remember that other people are not sharing their full story with us either.
4. Periodically check out of the online world and into your five senses.
Sometimes I look up and realize that I’ve been scrolling mindlessly on my phone for way too long. I recognize these moments because I somehow end up three years deep into the online album of a person whom I’ve not seen for twenty years (or have never actually met in real life.)
It’s moments like these that have had me swearing off social media all together: after all, why waste precious moments of life staring at other people’s timelines that have nothing to do with me?
But I’ve found that this “all or nothing” approach isn’t sustainable for me either, because the truth is that I truly like connecting with people online—when I’m not mindlessly scrolling down rabbit holes, it’s really fun to check in with my friends and interact with the many people I’ve connected with virtually.
The answer I’ve found is to balance my online interaction with my real-life day.
I make it a practice to set a timer when I’m about to get on social media; finishing my scrolling or comments before the buzzer goes off becomes a game that I play with myself. And if I find myself feeling bad as I look at other people’s posts, I take that as a signal to sign off and look at “where my feet are.” As in: where am I standing, what can I see, hear, or touch?
Checking in with my five senses gives me an idea of what’s real in my life, which gives me a space to decide if interfacing with the two-dimensional world is going to serve me at that moment or in that day. Though sometimes the answer is yes, the space to decide what serves us and doesn’t is the one from which we can enjoy social media interaction.
5. Imagine your favorite celebrity constipated.
Okay, I know that one’s a little crass, but bear with me here: Anybody that seems to have a perfect life is actually still a human just like you and me, with moments of definite imperfection at the same frequency.
Yes, they might have great filters or a house that’s been featured on “lifestyles of the rich and famous”, but I guarantee that they too sometimes sit around picking their nose, have been heartbroken at one point or another, and likely have people that they watch longingly (and with a sense of comparison) as well.
I’ll never forget happening into a group of very wealthy friends when I was young, and then being astonished at the ways they jealously compared themselves to even wealthier people. I was amazed at the houses and bank accounts they took for granted, while they told me about being made fun of in their privileged school for not having a garage full of antique cars or their own yacht, like some other (wealthier) classmates.
As I scooped my jaw up off the floor I was forced to realize that there is no end to comparison, whether it be in real life or online: the key is to take some deep breaths, recognize all that we already have to be grateful for, and then remember just how similar our humanity is beneath the fancy filters and thoughtful captions.
Everyone is doing the best they can—and this looks different online for different people. We are only responsible for what it looks (and feels) like in our world.
I hope the khaki family got a picture for their holiday card that day in the park, or that maybe they traded their perfectly posed smiles for some muddy and imperfect shots of real life. I got distracted with my own screaming baby and didn’t see how their shot turned out, but I’m sure that whatever happened, it didn’t all end up online. When I finally calmed my own daughter down, we lay belly up in the grass and I decided to snap a photo.
“So grateful,” I captioned the post, looking at our happy faces beaming back at me from the land of social media. “And constipated,” I added with a smile, loading my daughter back into the car for our trip back home to our perfectly imperfect and very real, actual, life.
About Melissa Pennel
Melissa Pennel is a writer, mother, and life coach living in Northern California. She is the author of the book Questions You’ll Wish You Asked: A Keepsake Journal for Mothers and Daughters, which stemmed from the grief of unexpectedly losing her mother before asking important questions. Find more of Melissa’s writing by subscribing to her blog or visiting Followyourfirecoaching.com.