You open the familiar, pink-and-orange icon and see more of the same. Food that’s artfully arranged. A fixer-upper in the works. A beautiful couple looking effortless and in love. Someone’s engagement/baby announcement. A latte. A too-clever caption. It’s times like this when you miss the old Instagram — the one where you posted quirky, grainy photos of your friends in their dorm room, or your ice cream cone (and it wasn’t a shot of your hand holding it against a cool mural, but actually you with your ice cream enjoying every last lick).
Confession: I am guilty of the overly-arranged, determined-to-be-artsy Instagram photo. Maybe you are, too?
Don’t get me wrong — Instagram is one of my favorite social media apps. I’ve discovered new friends, found amazing deals and products, discovered restaurants and places to visit, and learned about breaking news, just to name a few of the pluses. But lately, it’s made me feel more drained than grateful for the Insta-connections I’m making. And I think that has to do with Insta-perfection.
It seems like everyone is trying to present such a perfect, polished life on Instagram. I know I’m hardly the first person to gripe about this, but it’s hard to overstate it. Life isn’t as perfect as it appears on that platform, but it’s easy to lose sight of that and let a fog of restless unease and discontent cloud our thinking. It’s worth paying attention to where that restlessness comes from, and being intentional about our use of Instagram.
The trap of false perception
I was talking with a good friend from college recently about the trap of false perception we fall into when we rely on social media to tell us the story of a person’s life. Even my good friends have things going on in their lives that I don’t know about until I call or see them. It’s the parking ticket, or sick parent, or stressful job, or loneliness, or grief over a loved one that we keep to ourselves. Those things don’t get posted because they don’t fit into the box (pun intended).
Instead, we see squares of styled, curated moments. And sometimes those moments took an agonizingly long time to create! This is because they don’t show us reality. They don’t give us authenticity. And in some ways, I’d argue that these images are worse than what we see in magazines. At least I know that I’m not a celebrity with access to Photoshop and millions of dollars in trainers, stylists, and makeup artists. I’m not supposed to measure up to famous people. But my friends? My family? It’s much harder to see people I know with their lives seemingly put together and perfect than to see famous strangers looking flawless.
What makes for a good life?
I don’t have someone to take photos of me candidly laughing with morning light streaming in behind me. I don’t have a farmhouse that I recently renovated with my husband (I don’t have a husband, either), and I don’t have a beautiful baby to dress in organic, artisan clothing in earth tones. I don’t have a wedding to plan, or money to travel to far-off places in a stylish wardrobe. But it seems like these are the photos filling my phone screen, and the ones with the most likes. Yes, we like these photos. But are they real?
Should I feel like my life is any lesser because it doesn’t check off these arbitrary boxes? What makes a life truly good? That’s something philosophers have tried to answer for centuries, but I somehow don’t remember Aristotle or Plato remarking that a good life includes a fixer-upper, a handsome husband, a stylish wardrobe, a big following, and exotic vacations. Those things are not bad — in fact they are mostly good (plus or minus a lot of other factors). But determining if our lives have value based on the criteria we see on social media is not the key to a good life by any means.
Using Instagram with intentionality
So, what can we do if this is how we’re feeling?
- Limit your use of Instagram. This is something I’m working on for myself. I use the Moment app to track my overall daily phone usage, but you can also use it to see which apps you spend the most time using. If Instagram leaves you feeling frustrated, as it does for me sometimes, consider at least only using it during certain hours of the day. Or don’t use it on weekends. Or don’t open it at all if you’re already feeling low, or stressed, or hangry. Limiting your use of social media has been proven to lower feelings of depression and loneliness.
- Spend quality, real time with friends and family. My college friend and I both had a random day off recently, so we spent the morning catching up at a diner, and then going for a walk. This is what reminded me that our lives are full of both sorrows and joys. We are complex people, and no curated candid will ever capture that.
- Read. Give yourself a break from images and fill your mind with words instead. Listen to people’s thoughts, read their stories, discover lives different from your own. Reading has also been shown to help develop empathy, in addition to its many other benefits.
- Look back at old photos. I’m talking about the ones that had to have their film developed. The photos where you didn’t know what you looked like until they came back to you a few weeks later. The ones where you have red eye… and you look like yourself. Take out an old album and laugh a little at the awkwardness — it’s good for the soul.
- Make a gratitude list. Instagram can cause feelings of inadequacy or comparison, so as an antidote, write down what you are grateful for. Start with the big things, like your health, your home, your family; then note the small, unexpected delights as well.
I’m not going to be breaking up with Instagram cold-turkey, but I am going to take my own advice and be more aware of how and when I use it, as well as what I believe about what I’m seeing in people’s posts. I’m also going to spend time thinking about what a good, full life actually looks like — and then set that as my standard, instead of whatever the latest influencer thinks.