This is part two of our social media habits series. To understand more about truthiness, impression management, and comparing yourself to others, see part one: The Power & Peril of Comparison.
Because of the psychological drive for self-presentation, it’s impossible to expect impression management software—Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, TikTok, YouTube, Strava, RunKeeper, Runtastic, MapMyFitness, Garmin Connect, or the 2,479 other data-logging social networks—to be suddenly used for sharing stories of your own perceived failures, inadequacies or awkwardness, or evidence of your otherwise humdrum life.
Because impression management software is everywhere and always on, your brain gets exhausted. Your dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, the brain’s processor of social pain and emotional discomfort, is getting worked like a distance runner at CrossFit. The trick is to know how to manage this barrage so you don’t feel like you’re losing a social status game. After all, if obesity, happiness, smoking, substance abuse, and voting habits can spread through online social networks, you better believe that impression management tactics of athletes can too.
Facebook isn’t the problem; you are
See social networks for what they are: carefully designed opportunities for people to “self-present” in the most favorable way possible. If you find yourself looking at other people’s profiles, run-group selfies, screen grabs from their sports watch, or their badass training sessions—and you think WOW, this person is the real deal, closely followed by I wish I had their life, know that you’ve been duped. You are seeing selective nondisclosure. They show you only the parts that are literally awesome or give off an aroma of awesome. They’re not as fit, strong, happy, and as perfect as they seem. No one is.
This isn’t a criticism of them, either. They’re simply very good at impression management. For every single instance of masterful impression management that is uploaded, posted, or selfied, there are 10 hiding behind it of a straggly, exhausted, disorganized mess. This is the human condition. The more perfection they sell you, the worse the problem usually is. Trust me.
What to do about it
Constantly remind yourself that you are seeing a sanitized and heavily edited version of someone’s reality, even if it looks totally authentic. What you see and read is usually the best of the best—their highlight reel. It’s rarely overt and almost guaranteed to be subtle, but never forget that you are still watching a performance. If you still find it hard to see through other people’s impression management, you may have a behavioral habit that’s kicking. Habits are comprised of triggers, rituals, and rewards. Delete the social media app from your mobile phone and you’ve eliminated one of the biggest triggers for the problem.
Stalking versus grazing—know the dangers
If you’ve been surviving on a diet of social media grazing and stalking (observing, not posting), then you might want to reconsider why you do it. First, you need to know whether you’re predominantly a grazer or a stalker. A social media “grazer” is someone who cares little for social networking but still enjoys the sort of pseudo-connection that it creates—perhaps seeing what family members are up to or being able to vicariously enjoy the micro-successes of your loved ones without actually being there in person. No harm in that. Enjoy.
Conversely, a “stalker” is someone who enters the social media world a little deeper but with targeted, lingering, and slightly more sinister motivations. We’re not talking about “stalking” in the sense of illegal harassment, but in urban dictionary terms—peering anonymously (but legally) into someone’s public presence online for the purpose of curiosity, judgment, or plain ol’ voyeuristic pleasure. We all do it. It’s what makes social media fun. That said, we prefer not to use the word “stalking” because, well, it isn’t really that. It’s more akin to intrigue fishing, helped by a modicum of reciprocity and passive consent, at least in the Facebook world. It’s mostly guilt and shame that helps the healthy brain know where to draw the line.
Our goal here isn’t to help you draw moral lines in the sand over whom you choose to peek at, how frequently, or why, but we do offer you this general word of caution: If you find yourself doing this a lot, research suggests that you’re probably headed down an emotional dark alley. Excessive intrigue fishing seems partly fueled by feelings of inadequacy—the breeding ground for envy. And envy rarely ends well. It’s a gateway drug to depression, resentment, and schadenfreude.
If you’re an athlete who only grazes or stalks on social media, you could also be a kind of bully. All take and no give. A healthy self-presentation requires a broadcast channel. So use it. If you’re feeling self-conscious about making a disclosure, losing anonymity, or being poked fun at, your impression management system needs a bit of foreplay from your self-judgment system. Read Chapter 3 of The Brave Athlete, “I Don’t Think I Can: Building confidence and self-belief.”
What to do about it
If you only stalk, start to talk (and by “talk,” we mean post). If you’re just never sure of what to say or phobic about pretense, start by being honest. Tell your network about something you’ve enjoyed doing today, something you found hard to cope with, or something you’re grateful for. It’s not about getting “likes,” it’s about telling your dorsal anterior cingulate cortex that you care enough about it to at least field an offensive team.
If you find yourself feeling increasingly envious or resentful of other people on social media, logging out or letting it go is your best strategy. After all, it’s your mental health that suffers, not theirs. As the saying goes, “Resentment is like swallowing a poison and waiting for the other person to die.”
Low self-worth or low self-esteem might be your problem
Envy is an emotional response born out of a sense of discontent or inadequacy about someone else’s possessions or attributes, like success, attractiveness, popularity, talent, or fitness. It represents a self-evaluation threat that pisses off your Chimp. When your Chimp brain doesn’t feel threatened by another person’s self-presentation shenanigans, you don’t feel envious. Simple as that. You might feel slightly annoyed, indifferent, or even a twinge of scorn and condescension— but envy isn’t in the mix, for three reasons:
- Your self-judgment system (self-worth, -esteem, and -confidence) is sufficiently strong to not internalize threats to self,
- The incoming impression management tactic is so blatant and exaggerated that it’s actually funny, or worse, tragic (e.g., the questionable behavior of some men experiencing a “midlife crisis”), or
- The person you are being compared to is already lower on the totem pole on the attribute or possession in question. Hence social status was never under threat in the first place.
When an athlete has low self-worth or low self-esteem, the “threat threshold” is artificially low. He or she lives in an ever-present state of inadequacy and discontent, and the slightest whiff of another person’s impression management broadcast is invariably perceived as a threat. This leads to a cascade of negative emotion that feeds into the existing narrative—Oh that’s just great. Yet more proof that I’m talentless and slow.
Some athletes respond by amplifying their own self-presentation even more—greater pretense, more exaggeration, and more selective disclosure—flattering selfies, podium shots, accomplishments, and race results dominate their posts. The grazers and stalkers, those with low self-worth or self-esteem who don’t put an offensive team on the field, simmer with disappointment, resentment, and envy—a breeding ground for depression. Let’s try to break those cycles.
What to do about it
First, address your self-judgment problem. The Brave Athlete doesn’t provide a magical cure for self-judgment, but it does lay out a game plan to get you started. If you’re only a grazer or stalker, stop it. Try to give your impression management team a fighting chance by posting and sharing about things you can do. You probably don’t have to worry about being a show-off. And even if you are, it will probably help. Screw it. If you feel motivated to cut down on your social media activity, then this will certainly help, especially if it’s dominated by stalking. Ahem, we mean intrigue fishing.
Remember your brain is biased
As we’ve discussed elsewhere in this book, your brain takes shortcuts (175 at the last count) to reduce cognitive effort and become quicker and more efficient at making decisions. The strategies it uses are often named according to the mistakes it makes along the way—referred to as cognitive biases. When you look at other people with envy or admiration, you tend to fall into the trap of the halo effect.
The halo effect refers to our tendency to let an impression about someone in one area influence our impression about them in another. It need not be as obvious as thinking they’re probably good at everything, but instead can be extremely subtle, such as giving them the benefit of the doubt, being more forgiving of their bad decisions, or assuming their intentions must be good. Just because the badass athlete next door posts pictures of her smiling husband on Facebook, it doesn’t mean that her relationship is perfect or that she’s even happy. Of course, she might well be, but that’s not the point (or your business). It’s the fact you may be using information from one aspect of someone’s life to make assumptions about another. This can fan the flames of envy even more.
Another mental shortcut we use is called an “availability bias,” which refers to our tendency to use information that is close to hand when forming opinions about people and things. In this context, “close to hand” simply means things that you can most readily recall about them. Facebook serves up so many examples that are curated for quick-access memory (e.g., short pieces of text, photos, shares) that it’s no wonder we think certain people are better than they are—we’re often just subconsciously regurgitating their own highlight reel. Conversely, if you hold negative opinions about a certain race team, you might automatically assume that you probably won’t get on with Dave, an athlete who races for that team.
What to do about it
When thinking about a person you are growing increasingly envious of, stop to think about what information you actually have to support your conclusions that they are any faster, fitter, happier, or more content than you. Even if the evidence might be overwhelming that they are faster than you (or whatever), stop to think whether you’ve given them a halo and have now become envious of areas of their life that you actually know nothing about.
To avoid the availability bias, stop and force yourself to consider more information than first springs to mind. What do you know about them from in-person interactions? The same goes for confronting stereotypes you might have about certain people based on incomplete or biased information. After all, not all triathletes are neurotic, are terrible bike handlers, and wear mid-calf compression socks out to dinner.
This excerpt was adapted from The Brave Athlete: Calm the F*ck Down and Rise to the Occasion with permission from Ulysses Press. For more reading from Dr. Simon Marshall and Lesley Paterson, check out part one of our social media habits series: The Power & Peril of Comparison.
- N. A. Christakis, and J. H. Fowler, Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives: How Your Friends’ Friends’ Friends Affect Everything You Feel, Think, and Do (New York: Back Bay Books, 2011).
- H. T. Chou, and N. Edge, “They Are Happier and Having Better Lives Than I Am: The Impact of Using Facebook on Perceptions of Others’ Lives,” Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking 15, no. 2 (2012): 117–121.
- P. Verduyn et al., “Passive Facebook Usage Undermines Affective Well-Being: Experimental and Longitudinal Evidence,” Journal of Experimental Psychology General 144, no. 2 (2015): 480–488.
- M. N. Steers, R. E. Wickham, and L. K. Acitelli, “Seeing Everyone Else’s Highlight Reels: How Facebook Usage Is Linked to Depressive Symptoms,” Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 33 (2014): 701–731.
- Dr. Steve Peters, a British forensic and sport psychiatrist, originated this highly effective Chimp analogy to describe the function of the limbic system. Here’s how it fits: a chimp often acts up, has tantrums, and can be pretty disruptive. But a chimp can also be calm, sleepy, adorable, and cuddly. Most importantly, a chimp doesn’t really mean any harm to you because it doesn’t know better.
- For a list and description, see the Cognitive Bias Cheat Sheet from Better Humans.