For me, this situation isn’t hard to imagine because I experience it every day. These are the accounts I follow, and admittedly envy. I imagine a lot of people are in the same situation as me.
Social media exposes us to so many wonderful things, but it also opens our minds to potentially negative ways of thinking. I’m writing from the perspective of a therapist who uses Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) with my clients. In CBT, we call these negative thoughts cognitive distortions, or inaccuracies in our thinking that influence emotions and behaviors. Basically, it’s not the exposure to social media that causes us to feel a certain way, it’s the thoughts we have in the moment of viewing that influence our feelings.
So go back to that initial scenario. If you log into social media and see those beautiful, popular pictures and posts, you might think something along the lines of:
I’m not good enough as a mother or wife.
I should be doing something like that with my family. My house should look as nice as their house.
I am a failure as a blogger. If I can’t be well known/make money/have X number of followers, I should just quit.
I will never be successful. I will never lose this weight or be that beautiful.
Again, these are cognitive distortions. In CBT, the process of challenging and changing these negative thoughts is called cognitive restructuring. This technique includes identifying cognitive distortions, then disputing them with a more accurate, useful statement. I’ll go through an example:
I write a post I’m really proud of. I spend time promoting it on Instagram, Twitter, and in Facebook groups. I see other bloggers getting likes, comments, and followers, but I get very few. Much less than I expected, given how hard I worked on that post.
Thought (these are the example automatic thoughts, the cognitive distortions. I’ll explain some of them below):
There must be something wrong with my post, it’s not good enough. I should just give up on my blog because it’s not getting nearly as much traffic as I wanted. Compared to every other blog I follow, mine is so far behind. I will never be as successful as those bloggers. I should be better at this by now. Cognitive distortions in this example include:
- Filtering – focusing on the negative aspects of a situation while ignoring the positive.
- Personalizing – believing everything others do is because of/a reaction to you.
- Should statements – having rules on what you and others should do, leading to guilt or anger if those rules are broken (I should have 50 likes per Instagram post, I should post every day).
- All or Nothing – believing things can only be one extreme or the other, not being able to recognize any middle ground (success or failure).
- Comparing – comparing to others, usually with yourself as the lesser, undesirable object
- Fortune Telling – believing you know how something will end up (I will never be successful).
If the thoughts listed above are going through my mind, I’m probably feeling stressed, anxious, depressed, overwhelmed, defeated, angry, etc. All things most of us are trying to avoid.
I chose to write about blogging in this example because I am a brand new blogger, and have noticed myself very susceptible to these kinds of thoughts. This is absolutely a way social media can impact self-esteem, but there are so many other things that social media can make us feel less than about: how we look, how much weight we’ve lost after having kids, what our home looks like, our relationship with our partner, what we spend time doing with our kids, etc.
If you are noticing negative thoughts having an impact on your self-esteem, there is something you can do about it! Remember cognitive restructuring from earlier? This includes looking for evidence to support your thoughts, for evidence that contradicts your thoughts, and using that evidence to come up with a dispute (a more useful thought to challenge the automatic distortion). Let’s keep going with that example…
Evidence to support:
My blog post did not get the traffic I was hoping for. A lot of the Instagram accounts I follow have significantly more followers than mine.
Readers left thoughtful, positive comments on my post. My accounts and blog are still very new. I have learned a lot of new things about creating, writing, and promoting a blog in the last month.
I am working hard on this blog, and I enjoy it. It will take time to get it to where I want it to be, but every day I’m getting a little closer.
If I challenge the initial cognitive distortion and tell myself the dispute instead, I am much more likely to end up with neutral, if not positive thoughts. By challenging these thoughts and shifting our focus, we are able to decrease the negative impact things like social media have on our self-esteem.
On a more personal note, I am frequently needing to practice cognitive restructuring. I spend a lot of time looking at successful blogs and their social media accounts as I try to build my own. I do this as a way of learning, but it can be really hard to see things I envy and not feel jealous, guilty, sad, or angry (the feelings cognitive distortions will lead me to).
I remind myself that what I see on social media is usually the highlights of someone else’s life. The pictures are staged or edited to look appealing (which they are). I do the same thing, with the limited ability I have on my iPhone camera at least. I can focus on the things I don’t have, on the perceived flaws in my life that don’t often make it in my Instagram pictures. My house is messy, I still have a little baby weight on me, my son drools through all the cute clothes I dress him in, and I don’t have the white kitchen cabinets I so desperately want. Or instead I can challenge my cognitive distortions and realize that the things I consider flaws actually make my life as wonderful as it is. Now that is the kind of thinking I want influencing my self-esteem.
Kate blogs at Mommyhoodandmentalhealth.com. She is a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor who likes cooking, reading, football, being outside, and craft beer. She is wife to Ryan, mom to Jack, and doggy mom to Max. On her blog, Kate writes about balancing her career in mental health with being a first time mom, and how she takes care of her own mental health.