As I scrolled through Instagram on New Year’s Eve, I was inundated by a slew of “my year in review” carousel posts. Almost simultaneously, everyone seemed to be launching campaigns, depicting their accomplishments, adventures, and best-looking moments. It’s interesting the way images have the power to make us perceive only the ideal. But, when we only perceive the ideals of others, what does this do to our mental space, especially when we compare ourselves to them? It’s easy to question, “Why isn’t my life as ideal as theirs?”
People make all kinds of judgments about their own lives, even when they know they’re trying their best. “One of the key ways that we do this is through social comparison, or analyzing the self in relation to others.” Because we are social beings, social comparison is natural, but it becomes an issue when we are constantly comparing ourselves to snapshots that don’t tell the full story. When we see snapshots of someone’s achievements, we’re comparing our lived experiences to one, isolated moment in time.
For example, if you see someone working out on social media, and you think to yourself, “Wow, I couldn’t even get out of bed today,” first of all, that's okay, you're human. Secondly, you’re comparing your ongoing experience to a 1-minute clip which is not fair. Maybe that person experiences that as well, but you wouldn’t know because it’s not visible to you. So, it’s better not to compare oneself to an image that comes from a person you don’t truly know.
Even if you do know the person’s story, everyone is different, and we cannot compare our story to theirs. It’s not like you are the same people on the same path, and so, the outcome will determine which is better. On the contrary, you are two different people and so, your stories, how you interact with and perceive the world, and your experiences will be drastically different.
We are not all the same people on a linear race. Life is very abstract, and people are very complex. On the other hand, social comparison is very rigid, and oftentimes, it does not make space for the nuances of human experience. And as we view these carousel posts or these snapshots tossed together to create an ideal image, we have to remember that snapshots are just that. They are simply one piece of one moment, and that piece is often what people want to display. And unfortunately, constantly viewing these displays can have an impact on how we view ourselves.
For example, a 2020 study showed that viewing idealized images can increase dissatisfaction with oneself and can have detrimental effects on self-image. This study examined the effects of women viewing idealized images versus more natural-looking photos, and when the women viewed more natural-looking photos, they didn’t feel as much self-dissatisfaction. Thus, when we view idealized images, an unhealthy social comparison is sometimes triggered because an ideal is not rooted in reality.
The “ideal” is defined as satisfying one's conception of what is perfect or most suitable.” It also means “existing only in the imagination; desirable or perfect but not likely to become a reality.” So, it’s important to resist comparing real life to what others put on social media as “most suitable” or “perfect” because, sometimes, those idealized images come from what people would like to imagine, not necessarily what their reality is. Sometimes, content creation simply evokes what the creator imagines to be perfect, and this brings us back to the original point.
Social comparison is not something you’re required to do when you look at the idealized images of others. You don’t have to look at them. We have the right to pursue a reality in which we are comfortable with our self-image. So, if you need to arrange your feed this year to prevent social comparison, there’s nothing wrong with that.
On social media or in real life, it’s okay if you need to block conversations or people that trigger unhealthy social comparisons. It’s okay to place boundaries and to say, “Hey, I’m not interested in this topic” or to leave the chat. If you authentically don’t feel comfortable with an image or conversation, that’s fine. We don't have to shape ourselves based on comparisons. It’s okay to support and develop your authentic yourself.