Wellness Instagram Is Actually Bringing Me Down
I know that social media is a mental health minefield. I was the editor-in-chief of a national wellness magazine. I've read the studies. I've been scientifically debunked the idea that the perfect photo is proof of a perfect life-or even a perfect moment.
Yet, I still fall into the less-than trap myself.
But it's not just chic #OOTD posts, gorgeous living rooms, and gluten-free kid lunches in the adorable containers that make me feel worse by comparison. What I've noticed is lately is far more unexpected: Wellness Instagram is making me feel less well.
(If you're wondering, what is "wellness Instagram," it's my own little social microcosm. I have been working in wellness media for six years, I have a lot of smoothies, I have a lot of smoothie bowls, swipe-through workouts, meditation, and abs-and gobs and gobs of inspo-quote memes.)
Let's back up: I recently lost my job (my company was acquired and a massive restructuring ensued), and it was crushing in many ways, not just because I brought up so many complicated feelings (self-doubt, self-blame, questions about identity) and fears (financial, social, professional). They are not all rational, but they are typical: A 2013 Gallup poll found that the depression rate in unemployed Americans is more than the rate in people with full-time jobs.
My own bout of situational depression put a gray-colored lens over my sunny wellness feed, one that's left over even as I've emerged from the shock and sadness. As I scroll past post after "motivational" post, I find myself talking back to the screen. But what I say rarely mimics the "thanks for the reminder" or "I need that today" in the comments section.
What I find myself saying back to my feed is: Shut up.
No, I'm not a sparkly star today, thank you very much, I'm feeling rather dull. All the "crushing" of goals and "owning" of confidence and "you can do anything" -ness feels hollow. Pandering. Particularly when you could not feel like you could crush a flea.
My "hair looks great today," does it? Did Zeus descend from Mount Olympus with a giant can of Oribe Gold Lust Dry Shampoo to spritz over 23,000 people's collective hair? These generic pronouncements are almost 40-shades-of-Fenty nuanced. They are black and white, and no one's life-or emotional state-is that.
I'm not just imagining this saturation of cliché. Jean Twenge, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at the San Diego State University, which studies on mental health, social media, and generational differences have appeared in more than 100 scientific journals. While researching one of her books, Twenge found that "pop culture had this very clichéd language of 'you deserve the best' and 'everything will always work out.' Very pie-in-the-sky, high-expectations stuff. If you take a step back and analyze it as a cultural observer, you realize pretty quickly how strange it is. "
I understand the motive, of course. When an Instagram post proclaims "You are exactly where you need to be," it was probably written as a mini pep talk. But for those who are not in love with their current situation-like those who are feeling particularly vulnerable. Why would I "need to be" out of a job? Why would you "need to be" going through a romantic crisis? Why would someone need to be "dealing with fertility problems?" 68
Carmen Papaluca, a Ph.D. candidate in the School of Health Sciences at the University of Notre Dame Australia who is studying Instagram use, calls this it’s-all-good spin “positivity bias.” As she explains, “positive emotions are preferred on social media. Even ‘negative’ posts are often reframed in positive ways—e.g., posts often appear to frame challenges with optimism.”
So what's so bad about blind optimism?
Google" the problem with positive thinking " and over 432 million links will explain it. The concept that you can be happy-think-your-way out of feeling like a poop has been debunked a zillion times, but it seems to have reanimated on social like a Walking Dead zombie .
Imagine a personal interaction where a friend said, "" Oh what the hell, Amy, buck up, cheer up, just think of rainbows and puppies and all will be well, "says Margaret E. Duffy, Ph.D. ., executive director of the Novak Leadership Institute at the University of Missouri School of Journalism who has studied Facebook use and depression. "That is not helpful. It's dismissive of your feelings. "
Beyond just being unhelpful, it can actually be harmful. "When positive thinking is not grounded in something real, it's a bubble that will burst when it strikes against a lived experience, leading to feelings of disappointment and frustration," says Valentine Raiteri, MD, clinical instructor in psychiatry at New York Presbyterian Hospital-Weill Cornell Medical College. "You risk feeling helpless because you thought you were doing something just by thinking-as Your negative distortions about yourself and the world are amplified by a sense of failure. "
And what multiplies that feeling of failure even further? Inspo-quotes with themes of "choice" and "control."
As in, "Stop saying saying I can not. You can. You just choose not to, "which I spotted on one feed. Or: "You control how you feel," posted on another. The underlying message is that you can change something with the power of thought. If only it were that simple! But it's a fundamentally flawed concept, one with an undertone of shame. For starters, if you're feeling the way you're feeling, because of a mental health issue, it's certainly not a choice; there's brain physiology at play. Then there's the reality of privilege. Not everyone has the same access or resources required to change their situation, no matter how motivated they are.
The proliferation of all this self-focused encouragement has its roots in the 20th and 21st century prosperity-economically, medically, and technologically. A hundred years ago, nobody thought they controlled their destiny. Then, "illness and death were much more common and much more uncontrollable," says Twenge, author of iGen: Why Today's Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood. "Their kids could get sick and die at any moment. That's just not as true or as common now. "
More justice over the finances and health has given rise to the general cultural shift towards individualism. "You can look at this in Google's database and see so much more emphasis on the self and identity and uniqueness and encouragement and high expectations," says Twenge.
Better medicines and technological advances are an obvious boon to our well- being-as is more individualistic approach to the world in the sense that, for example, we now usually have more control over our careers, our relationships, and how we spend our time. But the focus on self has created this myth that "we have control over every minute of our lives," says Twenge. "Not acknowledging that it is in fact dangerous in many ways." As well as it is important to acknowledge and accept the things that you can not control. "This perception that everything is up to us means that if something bad happens, it's all your fault."
I'm not suggesting we all social media joy for the total doom-and-gloom. That would be a disaster.
What I am proposing is to remember that the people who benefit most from wellness advocacy are the ones who are not in a great place. To a friend going through a tough time, would you simply say, “The key to feeling good is to decide to stop feeling bad,” as one account told its audience of millions? Or, as another post suggested, “Not to spoil the ending for you, but everything is going to be okay. So stop worrying!”? I wouldn’t—because it’s trite…not to mention unhelpful.
How does this translate when you have thousands of followers-of whom you know nothing about? For me, all it takes to turn out a stereotypical "you are worth more" into a thingful sense is context.
The posts that do make me feel understood and heard and a little bit better almost always include anecdote or personal story about overcoming a struggle. They're thoughtful and genuine. As Duffy explains it, "Having found out that the others have felt and experienced what you have felt" but found a way through is powerful.
To wit, a 2017 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that accepting emotions—rather than judging yourself for them—helps promote psychological health. "Change cannot happen without self-knowledge," says Raiteri. "Addressing negative feelings is an effective start to overcoming them.”
Trainer and health coach Massy Arias (@massy.arias) is one of the best accounts on my feed when She's a huge success, with 2.5 million followers, and a booming fitness brand, She's honest, not glib, and when she offers a "you can crush it," she says. @ thegoodquoteSlightly longer than a sound bite, their posts have just enough nuance, real emotion, and truth about life's disappointments to make you feel all the feels-all except that "shut up" reaction I often get.
So! If you, too, are feeling fatigued with the very posts that aim to make you fe el energized, know that it's not you. It's them. Which brings me to my final point-appropriately, this true cliché: Step away from social media. Take a walk. Listen to a podcast. Call a friend. Because a screen is never a substitute for human-to-human interaction, especially when a catchphrase will not cut it.
Amy Keller Laird is an award-winning journalist and SELF's wellness correspondent. She was previously the Editor-in-Chief of Women's Health and the Beauty Director of Allure, and has appeared on The Doctors , Today, and Good Morning America as a health, wellness, and beauty expert. Follow her on Instagram at @ aklaird and on Twitter at @amykellerlaird.