Lifestyle Miscellaneous Uncategorized

Social Media and the Pressure to Live Your Best Life

As I write this, I’m at home convalescing after a particularly nasty bout of COVID. I was one of those people who, during the height of the pandemic, assumed that fighting COVID would be similar to knocking out a bad flu (at least for young people). That all changed after my first round of battling the illness. I landed in the ER because I couldn’t keep any food down.

Thankfully, my current COVID experience hasn’t required a hospital visit – but it has knocked me on my butt, nonetheless. As I sit home with nowhere to go and no one to see, I’ve found my thoughts drifting to social media, our current culture, and the world as a whole. Illness frequently brings events and thoughts into focus in a way that escapes us when we’re well. So, I find myself reflecting on social media and the pressure to live your best life.

What Does Live Your Best Life Mean Anyway?

This inspirational phrase gets thrown around a lot. Put simply, living your best life is living in a way that is authentic and aligns with your values and goals. Beautiful, right? There is nothing inherently wrong with the idea of living your best life – ideally, we’d all be living our best lives. In this dream universe, we’d all make a living from our passions, and we’d stuff every free moment with our favorite activities. It’s a wonderful thought. But in the day and age of social media, it can quickly take a dark turn.

My Doomscrolling Realization

Laying in bed, I found a brief moment of respite between feverish bouts and fatigue. I picked up my phone and automatically opened Instagram. My feed lit up with perfectly curated images and reels. Mothers in the mountains with their young kids. Friends on a big trip at some luxurious locale. Twenty-somethings showing off tanned bodies on exotic beaches. Sponsored ads about random women in some random place who make six figures using social media (and by the way, you can too! Just spend $$$ this course, these coaching calls, etc!).

I put my phone down, because a thought struck me with such force, that it actually scared me a bit. Here I was feeling sick, and instead of looking forward to being well again, I was feeling guilty that I wasn’t out “living my best life”. Pressure-induced thoughts swirled in the back of my mind…”I should plan another trip soon. When I’m well, I’ll get out and hike again, first thing…”.

It wasn’t enough to be well. It wasn’t enough to have energy. It wasn’t enough to fulfill my daily routine. I had to be out there, kicking butt, living my best life, every day.

pressure-to-live-your-best-lifeWhere is the gratitude in this thought process? The grace for oneself, and the reverence for life, with its ebbs and flows? I haven’t looked at my Facebook newsfeed since 2017, but I never mastered the same level of discipline with Instagram. Instagram brims with people who have centered their profiles on specific activities or ways of being. You may think to yourself, “I’m an adventurous mom”, or “I’m passionate about (insert activity here).” But when a simple search reveals millions of posts of people doing the same thing as you – but more often, or better, or at a higher level – you start to question yourself a bit.

The Pressure to Live Your Best Life is Real

Many of the folks on social media who are living their best lives like to wax poetic about it. There’s nothing wrong with sharing an inspirational story or giving people a peek into one’s personal life. However, don’t forget to keep these points in mind:

  • Social media is a highlight reel (obviously)
  • Many influencers on social media are attempting to sell you something, and the carefully curated images are part of the pitch.

We can’t (and shouldn’t) control the content that others create. So ultimately, it’s up to us as content consumers to set our own boundaries.

When we purchase a physical item or a service, typically we consider the cost and the potential benefit. Sometimes these are split-second decisions: we’re parched on a summer day, so we buy an ice-cold soda without a second thought. With other purchases, we spend days weighing the pros and cons, evaluating our financial situation, and contemplating whether the purchase will enrich our lives enough to justify the cost.

Unfortunately, with social media, we generally don’t get to pick what we see. The algorithms dish up whatever is trending based on our interests and past interactions. It’s like walking into a convenience store (opening a social media app), handing over your money (your attention), and then allowing the person at the counter (the algorithm) to “purchase” items on your behalf.

These interactions feel jarring for people who enjoy a high degree of autonomy. Most of the time, I don’t want to rapidly and unexpectedly descend into a social media rabbit hole, but these sites and apps are designed to suck us in. And one way to do that is to serve up a steady stream of aspirational content.

The Intersection of Aspiration and Imagery

Did you know that the brain assigns a higher “value” to imagery than to written text? This is why visualization exercises, mood (vision) boards, and images can be so compelling and impactful. This brain quirk works in our favor if we’re using a vision board or visualization exercises to achieve specific goals. However, it may be detrimental in the context of social media, as we may prioritize the value of the images without realizing their impact.

For some, seeing aspirational images might be motivating, inspiring, and enjoyable. When I’m in a good headspace, I want to consume media that compels me to do more, be better, and live life to the fullest. But when I’m not in a good mental spot, I honestly don’t want to see content that triggers feelings of inadequacy. Perhaps this is a sign of poor self-esteem, but I’ve found it healthier to be honest with myself about what makes me feel bad and to identify these triggers so that I can avoid them.

Lastly, we all need a bit of a reality check. So many aspirational images (and images in general) on the internet are tweaked in Photoshop, manipulated by AI, or otherwise altered. In most cases, these edited images DO NOT increase our motivation or inspire us to be our best.

In fact, the Body Positive Alliance¬†points out that excessively altered images contribute to feelings of body dysmorphia and general anxiety. So the next time you see someone’s “perfect” beach body or wonder why your vacation pictures seem lackluster compared to a big-time influencer’s, remember how common it is for people to post edited images (even if they SWEAR it’s #nofilter !)

What to Do When You Feel the Pressure to Live Your Best Life Due to Social Media

We are mostly at the mercy of the algorithms regarding our content consumption. I wish people would openly admit that a photo has been altered, and I appreciate all of the creators who call attention to the rampant use of Photoshop, AI, and other editing tools on social media.

At the end of the day, though, we are responsible for our reactions, and we can draw healthy boundaries. So this is what I’d recommend doing the next time you feel inadequate due to social media:

  • Close the apps: It’s that simple – remove the trigger. Even stepping away temporarily can be helpful (let’s be honest, if you’re anything like me, you’ll be tempted to check social media again in 15 or 20 minutes). Stepping away is easier said than done. I know how tempting it is to comb through an intriguing person’s profile or just continue scrolling, even after you’ve seen something that makes you feel crappy. But closing the apps is always a wise move!
  • Remember that it’s not a competition: there is no grand contest to see who is the most beautiful, the most adventurous, the richest, the most successful, etc. There are MANY people who are beautiful, rich, successful, adventurous or all of the above. Someone else can have a fantastic and meaningful life without detracting from your ability to enjoy the same type of existence.
  • Focus on gratitude: it’s so easy to fixate on what we lack. I think this is especially true for us first-worlders who are blessed with clean water, good food, nice housing, and all of the simple amenities that are easy to take for granted. But even jotting down a quick list of things you’re grateful for can give you a nice mood boost.
  • Accept each moment: few of us welcome pain, grief, sadness, and other difficult emotions or circumstances. We don’t need to embrace the negative and painful side of life, but we can learn to accept it. And doing so makes the good moments that much better.

Does social media create pressure to live your best life? Let me know what you think in the comments! 

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