American novelist Anne Lamott once said, “Never compare your insides to everyone else’s outsides.” This is wonderful advice, if only it were always possible. It seems natural to compare our insides to other people’s outsides, because we have intimate knowledge of our insides: our foibles, embarrassments, moments of pain or vulnerability on any given day, and all the ways we are pretty certain we fall short, or are quite simply not enough. On the other hand, we may be certain we are “too” (fill in the blank), or even that we alone are uniquely, wretchedly cursed in one way or another. We may have private moments of being convinced of this. We may have never said it out loud.
Before the advent of social media, the contrast between this private mental theater of anguish and inadequacy on the one hand, and the appearance of other people ostensibly “having it together,” or being happy, or just having things magically happen for them somehow (all the things you hunger after but which seem somehow, magically unobtainable to you alone), was already painful enough. Social media allows these “others,” of whom our true, intimate knowledge might already be limited, to showcase only the highlight reel of their lives: the special accomplishments, the moments of joy, the travel, the touched-up beauty, anything that seems fabulous. So the already apparent external successes of others are now touched up, condensed and showcased, on an LCD screen. The human behind them remains unseen, and so, especially do their “insides,” or their own private, internal experience of themselves, the world, other people, and life in general.
The temptation is strong to view this material and to conclude that what is displayed on this profile really does sum up this other person’s life. It can be all too easy to caricaturize or oversimplify others, rather than to begin to try to fathom the vastness of the entity behind their eyes. If we conclude this (that what is presented here on this profile really encompasses the totality of this person and their life), the invitation to feel blaring pain and inadequacy extends itself to you with hooks and snares. The exact issues upon which we feel particular pain in our private lives will seem to jump out of the page. And we spiral into our “not enough,” “uniquely cursed,” or “just inadequate” story. We do so in a way that feels unique and alone. In fact, the alone-ness is punctuated by the fact that most people are not advertising (on social media, or elsewhere) the fact that they, too, are struggling in exactly the same area, or in some other area.
We come away feeling like there really must be something wrong with us for not having the same highlight reel. Indeed, there must be something wrong with us for feeling this way about not having the same highlight reel. Apparently no one else does (according to their social media profiles), right? Actually I would hazard the guess, with a great deal of confidence, that (blessedly) you would be wrong to think this. You are so much less alone than you imagine yourself to be with whatever it is that hurts, for you, when you look at social media. Also, feelings (about life, small things, or anything in between) that deviate from pure joy are totally normal. There is nothing wrong with you for feeling this way. In fact, I am going to do the therapist thing and tell you that it is valid for you to feel that way, based on the information you are getting, and the perception that that information helps you to construct. Maybe I can help you feel a little better by massaging and deconstructing that information, just a little bit (i.e., what you see on social media profiles are not the whole story of someone else’s life, and whatever it is that is a particular pain point for you, I can pretty much guarantee there are others with a similar pain point—- You’re not alone).
American Tibetan Buddhist, Pema Chodron, during a series of lectures, said (beautifully) that when you feel your inadequacy, you are touching the inadequacy of all beings. When you breathe into it and make space for it, it is powerful to imagine that this exact, poignant feeling signature is experienced by other beings, and has been experienced by them, since long before you were born. The same is true of other difficult emotions. They can be catalysts for expanding our compassion, because they give us a taste of what it really is to be human: what it is for you, and for me, and for all of us. You are not alone. More on the messiness and imperfection of the human experience to come 🙂
As a post-script to these thoughts: Isn’t it interesting the parts of ourselves and our lives that we select for showcasing on social media or for speaking about in conversation, especially schmoozing conversations or how’s-it-going conversations? It seems like we are all convinced that other people want to hear the highlight reel, or will like us more if we paint ourselves to be completely successful and happy, and hide or forgo the messy, painful or imperfect parts*. It seems to be more the case that people find us charming when we are honest. Why? Because in being honest, (e.g., “I’m actually really struggling with this,” or, “I feel pretty exhausted, to be honest with you. Don’t really want to go to this thing . . .”), we have just extended a tendril of genuine, vulnerable connection. Maybe, we have made the other feel less alone with their “insides”. I am fairly convinced that authenticity, honesty and vulnerability nurture our own mental and emotional health and connected-ness, and that of others. More to come 🙂
*I should add that it does bring me joy to see my family and friends genuinely happy, attaining long-held dreams, surrounded by love, creating beauty in their lives– My heart is right there with them, and it would be unbearable to see them suffering. I suppose the distinction here is subtle: We can want all the best for our loved ones, and still feel isolated or inadequate when and if we scroll through social media for much longer stretches of time than we would have ever planned, time that could have been spent talking to someone on the phone, or otherwise directly, really connecting. There is a sort of photo album or scrap book quality to social media at times, and this is beautiful. The photo albums and scrap books that people make can become like protected reliquaries of life’s most important events, and reminders of why we want to persevere. Eventually, they may be like archives for curious others, descendants or great great nieces and nephews. The internet perhaps does provide a better medium for this kind of archival preservation. I know that any record of the most incandescent moments of our lives will remain as unearthly treasures to those we leave behind at the end of this fierce journey. Please feel free to leave comments or feedback about this, or any other post. I want to ensure that my posts are always helpful to others, or helping to alleviate suffering in some way.