Surviving Social Media

with Lesley Paterson

We all know that chick on social media. The badass athlete who is the athlete you wouldn’t mind being, even if just for a day. Perhaps she’s your podium nemesis or someone who’s just the right amount of fast, serious, and stylish. Perhaps it’s her lean arms or long legs, or that she never seems injured. Whoever she is, chances are your athlete crush on social media is depressingly fit and fast, and appears enviably happy.  Heck, her whole life might even seem better than yours. Why else would her newsfeed be littered with breadcrumbs of her perfect job, the supportive husband, and her more talented-than-average kids? I bet even her suffer-face is badass, far from the snot-ridden, beet-colored ripple-fest that you own.  Stalking her on social media has become something of a guilty pleasure. But there’s a dark side and you know it. Your head wants to be full of girl-power admiration, but your heart feels a bit wounded every time you tune in. Why is this such a confusing feeling? For many women, social media fuels self-criticism adds to self-doubt and reminds you that deep down you don’t quite feel enough.  

Well, I’m here to tell you that you’ve been duped. You’ve been tricked into believing someone else’s “impression management,” – the fancy term that psychologists use to describe the tricks people use to try and influence other people’s perception of themselves so they appear more athletic, more attractive, more intelligent, more witty, more kind, and generally more awesome. Impression management is not malicious, narcissistic, or even unnatural.  Of course, it can be, but in most cases, it’s simply nature’s way of prodding us to climb the social status ladder. We all do it. Yes, even you. Whether it’s posting a Garmin screen capture from your last run (wow, great pace), the pre-race photo (which happens to make your arms look good), the inspirational quote (wow, you’re so full of gratitude and joy), the Facebook check-in at an airport (you’re such a world traveler), or just a plain ole pic of a girl’s night out (you’re so popular and know how to have a great time).

If you want to zoom up a league table of social status, cherry-picking examples of your own awesomeness and broadcasting them to the world seems entirely sensible. After all, you did run 18 miles on Saturday in your new kit and wear a run visor that hides the zit on your forehead but makes your cheekbones pop. And, as luck would have it, you managed to selfie an exhausted but not unattractive pose prior to collapsing. Who cares that your six other runs lasted less than 28 minutes because you were mildly hungover and you just couldn’t be arsed to run any farther. Nope, if it’s your broadcast channel, you might as well give ‘em the Heisman Trophy reel. If people conclude that being you is awesome, who are you to protest? The one thing we know for certain about impression management is that we all do it—at least to some degree. And make no bones about it: it’s a performance in every sense of the word.

When you’re on the receiving end of someone else’s ‘in-your-face’ impression management, it’s annoying precisely because you’re on the opposing team. Shrinks call this a self-evaluation threat. It sends the message that their social standing is higher than yours because they’re fitter, leaner, faster, grittier, happier (need we go on?) than you. And it’s irritating. Sometimes it’s really overt, such as someone telling you literally how great they are. Sometimes it’s less overt but still noticeable—when a person’s posts are nothing but displays of awesomeness. It’s no surprise that feeling of, “I’m not enough,” is on the rise, in part because billions of us are perma-plugged into very sophisticated impression management software: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, SnapChat, and the hundreds of other apps that help us curate an image of ourselves. Here are five tips to survive the onslaught of other people’s impression management that doesn't require you to unplug:

  1. Always remember that people on social media are giving a performance in every sense of the word. People only show you the parts that they want you to see. 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.
  2. Be wary of only grazing or stalking. It’s not good for you. If you’ve been surviving on a diet of social media grazing or stalking (observing but rarely posting, or digging into other people’s profiles with voyeuristic curiosity) then you might want to reconsider why you do it. Research shows that when you dig a little deeper than you’d be willing to admit, it’s partly fueled by feelings of inadequacy—the breeding ground for envy. And envy rarely ends well. It’s a gateway drug to depression and resentment. If you rarely contribute to social media, start doing so but with more transparency. It’s terrifying at first, but it’s strangely liberating. After all, people bond on weaknesses and limitations, not strengths and awesomeness.
  3. Confront your irrational thinking about what you’re looking at. 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 clearly are [e.g., faster] than you, stop to think whether you’re jumping to conclusions about other areas of their life that you know nothing about.
  4. Use the science to break a bad habit of social media ‘addiction.’ If your social media habits have started to feel overwhelming, it might be time to break the habit. Scientists have discovered that all habits follow very a predictable and logical pattern. They are comprised of a trigger, a ritual, and a reward. Each element needs to be targeted to break the habit but start with the trigger. The trigger for social media use is typically the notification icon on your cell phone or, ahem, boredom. Trying turning off the notifications in the app, logging out of the app on your phone, or even deleting the app entirely on your phone. If scrolling is fueled by boredom, trying to have a substitute behavior at the ready that is more constructive or fun (e.g., listening to a podcast, playing Words with Friends). 
  5. Create a time budget of social media use or self-impose a timeout. If quitting cold turkey isn’t for you, try to set boundaries to your social media time. For example, you might decide to let yourself scroll, read and click for 10 minutes per day or only permit yourself to log on at lunchtime, or whenever you’re on the toilet (weird, I know, but oddly effective). You might even dedicate entire days (or, gasp, weeks!) to being social media free. It doesn’t really matter how and when you set these boundaries but make sure you stick to them. Use the alarm function on your phone to make sure you know when to log out.

Lesley Paterson is a Liv ambassador, a 3-time World Champion triathlete, professional mountain biker, and co-author of “The Brave Athlete: Calm the F*ck Down and Rise to the Occasion.” (VeloPress).  Available from www.braveheartcoach.com.

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