Despite finding ourselves in the middle of a global pandemic, our desire to compare ourselves to the people we follow on social media and interact with online is stronger than ever. But why is this? And what, if anything, can we do about it?
It’s a Monday morning. Outside, the sun is shining. You roll over in bed, unplug your phone and open Instagram. Scrolling through your feed, you notice one of the influencers you follow has posted a picture of their newly baked banana bread. “Lockdown life!” the caption reads.
Clicking on their profile, you find yourself absentmindedly scrolling through their quarantine adventures. On Sunday, they ran 5k before 8am. Last Tuesday, they spent their day taking online courses – they’re working towards their PT qualification, which they hope to have by the time lockdown is over. In their spare time, they’ve also managed to reorganise their wardrobe, take part in a big family quiz (and posted the Zoom screenshots to prove it) and cut their boyfriends hair.
There is, of course, nothing wrong with any of this. You’re happy that they’re coping so well in lockdown – seeing other people get on with things and work towards their goals is a welcome reminder that life goes on.
But at the same time, there’s a creeping feeling of discomfort bubbling in your chest. Why haven’t your family had a quiz yet? How come they’ve managed to fit so many things into their days? Why didn’t you start an online course as soon as lockdown began?
This impulse – to compare ourselves to others – isn’t unfamiliar to us. In the age of social media, we’ve become accustomed to this kind of behaviour, comparing our careers, social lives, family lives, fitness and levels of success to the lives we see played out on social media. Commonly known as comparison culture, this urge to analyse the minute details of the people around us has loomed over our lives for some time now, damaging our self-esteem and placing strain on our mental health.
But what is new – and perhaps most worrying – is how often we’re doing it now we’re in lockdown. The coronavirus pandemic, it seems, has given us a brand new lease of life when it comes to comparing every detail of our personal lives to those we see on our screens.
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“I have Epidermolysis Bullosa [a rare condition which causes the skin to blister when touched] so I’m limited to what I can do,” freelance journalist Myra Ali tells Stylist. “I feel compared to others I’m not as productive but I’m trying to focus on keeping positive and appreciating the support I have of my family around me.
“I’m more aware of how motivational influencers and bloggers on Instagram can make me feel guilty for not doing enough or learning a new kill in lockdown – but I’d rather not add guilt to my mental halth especially when Covid-19 is a scary thing itself.”
Charelle Griffith, a marketing strategist, agrees. “I’m still working full time and also run a blog and podcast on the side. Most of my friends have been furloughed and are cooking gorgeous meals, starting new hobbies I’ve never heard of and reading more books than me (and I’m a book blogger).”
Charlie Darlington, a PR consultant, is also finding social media a difficult place to be at the moment.
“I’m a single, 27-year-old female, living on my own during the crisis,” she says. “I’m at an age where most of my friends are coupled up, getting engaged, having children and I’ve found their social media accounts unbearable to scroll through recently.
“I have to use social media for work purposes but at weekends I’m now deleting it altogether because I can’t cope with the strain on my mental health.”
It’s clear that lots of us are finding our urge to compare is strengthened under lockdown. It’s a phenomenon we’ve spoken about at length among the Stylist team; from feeling left out if we don’t get tagged in enough viral challenges to struggling with the pressure to be productive, many of us are finding social media a difficult place to be right now. But why?
“We now have this opportunity to compare to what we perceive to be people’s private and unseen lives.
“We’ve been seeing the homes of celebrities and vloggers who would usually be out on the street shooting a look for example, so the potential content we can compare ourselves to has got richer, broader and deeper.”
According to Sheridan, lockdown has worsened our urge to compare because we’re unable to take the action we usually would when we feel those uncomfortable feelings.
“Because a key antidote to comparison is about taking action based on what we want, when we’re in lockdown it’s really difficult to take the action towards your own goals,” she explains.
“Let’s say you’re comparing your career to a pal’s, whether it’s on social media or otherwise. Before lockdown you might say ‘right, I’m going to brush up my LinkedIn, I’m going to have some interviews and then in three months’ time I could be at a totally different place in my career’.
“In lockdown, the steps that we can take have been really, really limited. There’s always something you can do, but it feels a bit like our wings have been clipped at the moment, and I think that makes comparison more intense, because before we might have carried on and got back in our own lane, now it feels like we’re more limited with that.”
Without the distraction of our day-to-day lives to take our minds off comparing, we’ve found ourselves trapped in a bit of a cycle – one which has the power to take its toll on our self-esteem and mental health. We all know that comparing our lives to the highlight reels of people we haven’t even met doesn’t make sense, but it’s also pretty hard to stop. So, what can we do?
“Ironically, the key to stopping comparing is acknowledging it’s happening already, and rather than trying to bat it away, taking some time to take a breath and understand what’s coming up,” Sheridan explains.
According to her, deciding that we’re sick of comparing ourselves to others is half the battle – once we’ve done that, we can start to reassess which areas of our lives we want to prioritise, and carve all of the influences and activities away that aren’t serving our goals.
“It’s also important to turn it around,” she says. “Rather than looking at what we’re not included in, or what we’re not doing, look at what we are and close the gap on it. So yeah, you may not have made banana bread, but maybe you finally cleaned out the tip that is your laundry basket.
“It’s about reframing – taking a step back and looking up. I think sometimes we get caught and we can’t see the wood from the trees, and these smaller trends start to overtake the bigger picture of what’s really going on in our lives.
“It’s so easy to feel left out and like we’re not catching up. But this is the irony (and it shows how ingrained hustle culture is) that even in lockdown, we’re like right how can we keep things the same? It’s like – no, everything’s different now.”
To find out more about comparison culture during lockdown, check out episode one of the Working From Home with Stylist podcast, available wherever you get your podcasts.
As Stylist’s digital writer, Lauren Geall writes on topics including mental health, wellbeing and women’s issues. She’s also a big fan of houseplants and likes to dabble in film and TV from time-to-time. You can find her on Twitter at @laurenjanegeall.