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On Facebook, friends, life goals, and making comparisons

Facebook makes me feel bad about myself. Almost every time I navigate away, I feel like I just finished eating an oversized slice of not-particular-delicious chocolate cake. I shouldn’t eat it in the first place, and eating it when it’s not really that tasty is even worse. But I eat it because it’s in front of me, because there’s something vaguely satisfying in it, despite the knowledge that I’ll regret doing so almost immediately after. I rarely really enjoy spending time on Facebook, and I know that if I waste 10 minutes or 45, I’ll regret it afterwards. And yet on a daily basis I waste much more than that.

Why does it make me feel bad? Scrolling through random events and photographs and updates, I come away convinced that I’m lagging behind in competitions for things I don’t necessarily want, and that I am having a much more difficult go at this “life” thing than everyone else. Not difficult in that I’m beset by concrete challenges – I’m an educated 20-something white American in good health – but instead beset by existential crisis and day-to-day difficulties that others don’t seem to face. I read a newsfeed full of achievement announcements and photographs of house renovations, vacations, marriages, babies, nights out…and compare this aggregate with my own life – full of adventure, sure but also full of confusion and uncertainty and baggage and more confusion…and come away feeling pretty dysfunctional. And then I sign off, telling myself that their lives are lame and they’ll wake up in 15 years wishing they didn’t have that mortgage or that teenager, as if it really is a competition and they just aren’t aware that they’re losing, yet. I fall right into the trap – every time. 

Human beings all have hopes and fears. We all have relationships (of various sorts), relationships are messy, even relationships with awesome people who want the best for us and treat us well (and this isn’t all relationships). We all have parents and grades and jobs and taxes and bills and regrets and goals and things we hate about ourselves and things we wished other people would notice about us. We know, rationally, that if this is true for us it is also true for others. And it is. It is true for our peers, our teachers, our parents, everyone. Even the people who’s lives, to us, look clean and orderly. But I compare my thoughts – complex and even contradictory at times – to the external appearance of others, and feel like a mess. Humans have a problem attributing the same level of complexity to the thoughts of others that we know ourselves to possess. There’s research attesting to this. We watch the other blobs of humanity wander about, looking purposeful, and assume that they are in fact purposeful and that everything is as simple as it seems. But I don’t have deeper thoughts than other people, I am just only able to know the complexity of my own feelings. Rationalizing that they are probably as complicated and messy as I am, knowing this piece of information, and taking solace in it or allowing it to give me reprieve from this perceived competition, are entirely different things.

We all deal with our fears (or not) and go after our dreams (or not) and trip and fall down. We get hung up on things that we shouldn’t, fall in love with people that we shouldn’t, and hurt people’s feelings. We have jobs in which we feel undervalued, insurance that doesn’t cover what it should, and parents who disapprove of something we’re doing. We also have happy things, successes and accomplishments and raises and vacations. We fall in love, buy puppies, and spend unforgettable evenings in dive bars with close friends. It’s a roller-coaster, life. We do all of this while watching the people around us only able to see what’s going on on the surface, in the photographs and highlights and yearly family update newsletters. And with constant connection and technology providing a few details but not the backstory, not the messy confusion underneath, it is exacerbated. We see others buying houses and cars and having babies, or getting married…and it looks SO easy. It looks like their lives are moving along a little path quite smoothly, that they do x and then y and then get a promotion that not only puts them in a job they actually enjoy, as luck would have it, but allows the down payment and then ta-da they have their shit all settled. Their photographs are happy and their statuses are happy and their lives seem entirely uncomplicated and positive.

I compare this perceived simple, happy, comfortable existence with my own, with the frustrations and difficulty and uncertainty that seems like a daily part of living for me – and I feel inadequate.  I have moments where I feel like everything on track, and those moments are inevitably followed (it seems) by moments in which it feels like everything is falling apart and I will absolutely never be a fully functioning adult the way other people seem able to be.

We rely on what we see, what people present to the world, as a metric for judging our own inadequacies. Before social media and the posting of food porn and marathon completion times, we knew few of these details about anyone who wasn’t a close friend. This meant you either knew someone deeply enough that you got below the surface and could see that they were just as much of a complicated mess as you were, or they were an acquaintance, and you didn’t really spend much time comparing yourself to them because you didn’t have enough to use. Sidenote? This is why everyone hates reunions. You’re stuck having details conversations with these acquaintances that amount to not much more than a highlighting of the good things – a pile of heavily filtered data much like we now get from Facebook.

Today, we feel closer to a lot of people, but through the filter of what they post online. We see what they eat for breakfast, we see where they go on vacation, and we see when they lose 20lb or run a 10k for the first time. So then we feel like we know them, know their lives. “That’s the girl from school who only came to class half the time and never did the reading. She’s lost 20lb and here are picture of her on a boat in Figi with a group of other happy, tan, thin people.” And so I assume that she’s got a good job, has her life on track, exercises regularly, and has a group of close friends with whom she travels to awesome places. Cue dismal feelings and self-examination. All we know is highlights, but we use those highlights to measure our own inadequacies.

This is why again and again researchers are finding that the more we use Facebook, the less happy we are.  A cognitive neuroscientist at U. Michigan found the effects of Facebook are most pronounced for those who socialize the most “in real life.” The folks who did the most direct, face-to-face socializing and used social media were the ones who reported the most Facebook-related mood decline. Those face-to-face socializers see the good and the bad, the complexity that comes with real, developed, friendships. They get the balance with real friends, and feel the utter lack of balance on Facebook.

When we have real friendships, deep ones, we know that their lives are just as complicated and confusing as our own. Regular contact, enough so that the conversations aren’t about “oh what have you been up to” but instead are the gritty details of something going on in that particular moment of that person’s life, this kind of contact gives you insight into the complexity. They’re not filtering it for you, because that’s sort of the purpose of friendship. You see friends unravel in the unhealthiest of ways when a relationship ends; you see them frozen with indecision at a particular life-fork; you see impulsiveness and regret and uncertainty. It’s one of the benefits of having close friends – recognizing that other people have these things too, and supporting them through those moments. We feel less alone, and this only strengthens the bond we feel with the person willing to share their mess of a life with us.

So what’s the conclusion? There are some obvious ones, things you will probably ignore, or nod in agreement to and then ignore. Spend less time on Facebook. Nurture real friendships instead, friendships that will demonstrate and verify that we all have sometimes-icky, complicated lives. Stop comparing yourself to others so much.

Since these are common pieces of advice, things you know to some extent already, I’ll add one more to the list. Remember to appreciate the complexity, the mess, as frustrating and painful as it can sometimes be. I don’t really want a simple life where everything comes easily, exactly when I expect it. I don’t want a mortgage, even if other people my age are buying their first house. I don’t want to have it all sorted out because I’m 28 and there are a lot of years left to live, and sorting it all out now seems like it’d leave me with a lot of boring years. Maybe sorting it out can be a lifetime endeavor.

One of my best friends in the world told me – a long time ago when we were in college talking about relationships and whether or not we wanted to marry the boys we were dating (neither of us are with them now) – that she didn’t understand the people who wanted to get married right away. She wanted to savor each stage of a relationship, since even if you’re with the right person, you only get each stage once. One chance to be nervous around them, on best behavior and trying to impress. One “we’re now exclusive” stage where they’re new and you’ve just acknowledged mutual feelings. One Now Saying “I love you” stage. One “living together and only pooping when the other isn’t home…one engagement, one marriage. Savor each one. Don’t rush through the first 10 so you can settle in the last few because you feel like getting there is some sort of accomplishment.

Maybe life is the same way. Maybe we feel this rush to sort everything out, to have all the things we want and to have them now, and to have them with an absence of all the things we don’t want, the things that frustrate and upset us. Maybe we should abandon the impatience to settle everything, to be established and comfortable and purposeful like our peers seem to be, especially since many of the “settled” people in their 30’s and 40’s will tell you that it gets boring pretty damn quickly. Maybe we should savor the confusion and figuring-it-out and the mistakes. Maybe we should celebrate the dead-end job that we take because it brings us something else we want – more free time, the ability to live in a particular place, a great discount on plane tickets or bicycles or bottles of wine. Maybe I’ll start putting up statuses about how damn confusing and frustrating and disappointing life is, with a disclaimer that I’m not looking for an “everything will work out perfectly” platitude, that I’m trying to embrace the good with the bad.

climb metaphor?

climb metaphor?

Maybe this urge to give our FB profiles a positive veneer is an exertion of what little control we have over our lives, an attempt to fit in to what we perceive other people to be experiencing, a digital 10-year high school reunion. Maybe we should all acknowledge, even a little bit more, that none of our lives are simple, easy, clean, or organized. Maybe Miley IS right ;-) and “it’s all about the climb” and acknowledging that the climb is – in fact – uphill and not always easy…is actually ok…and might just connect you a little bit more to the people around you.


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October 2013
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