Why Women Should, and Can, Get Past 'Compare and Despair' on Social Media

There is a clear price to be paid for comparing ourselves to others and social media makes it exceptionally easy to do so. So, why do women do this to ourselves? And how can we stop?
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Last week, the TODAY show featured a help-a-thon doling out advice on how women can do it all, encouraging viewers to tweet their tips and questions using the hashtag #doingitall. As a mother of two young kids and a scholar of work-life balance and women's careers, I know that when media promotes the idea that women should be "doing it all," it has the potential to be anything, but helpful.

Reinforcing the idea that we should all aspire to be part of a super breed of magical women who have careers, maintain beautiful homes, patiently parent, create home-cooked meals (with vegetables that their kids will actually eat), and even go to the gym, is not only unrealistic, but actively harmful to our overall health and happiness.

With my colleague Dr. Liz Boyd, I've conducted research on how "social comparison" (the act of comparing ourselves to others) impacts feelings of work-family conflict. Not surprisingly, those who engage in more comparison to others feel worse about their work-life balance. Perhaps more surprisingly, these individuals also report worse physical health symptoms and greater intentions to leave their jobs.

There is a clear price to be paid for comparing ourselves to others and social media makes it exceptionally easy to do so. Given that women are significantly higher users of social media compared to men, it's also likely that women are doing more of the comparing than their male counterparts.

So, why do women do this to ourselves? And how can we stop?

Long before Pinterest and Instagram (and even before the Internet), Leon Festinger proposed his "social comparison" theory in 1954. He argued that human beings have an innate desire to evaluate our own abilities and performance. In the absence of objective information about our performance, we will compare ourselves to others to see how we stack up. Decades of research have provided support for this theory. Given that our modern, complex lives don't provide much objective feedback about how we're managing work, family and other responsibilities, we're stuck relying on others to judge ourselves. But, the comparison process can backfire and cause us to judge ourselves unnecessarily harshly, particularly when we are comparing ourselves to the filtered, perfect images we see on social media -- the images women seem particularly drawn to. Perhaps research suggesting that women's identities are more strongly defined by relationships to others than men's may provide insight as to why social media is so compelling to us.

To be sure, men are also subject to the process and perils of social comparison. But, as women continue to define and redefine our roles at home and at work, the impact of social media may be particularly impactful on our so-called fragile self-identities. When women compare themselves to these idealized images, they may feel like they need to "do it all" and drive themselves to exhaustion and frustration seeking perfection. The flip side is that they may feel like these images are so unattainable that they feel hopeless and dejected. Neither extreme is healthy or helpful.

So, what can be done? Unfortunately, the edict, "Stop comparing yourself to others," is unlikely to be an effective recommendation to avoid this trap. Rather than fight the inevitable comparisons, there are ways that women can be thoughtful and proactive consumers of social media that are less likely to lead to guilt, frustration and perfectionism.

Given that we tend to use social comparisons in the absence of objective information, one strategy is to seek out objective criteria that personally define a success work-life balance for us whatever that may look like. Of course, broader cultural efforts to redefine "success" are essential. In the meantime, armed with our own unique definitions of success and objective criteria for measuring it, we can be more resilient in the face of unrealistic images on social media.

A second strategy for managing social comparisons is to be mindful of who you are comparing yourself to. Comparing your home to that of a home décor blogger is a recipe for feelings of inadequacy. Remember, it's their job to be perceived as an expert in that topic. There is no reason to hold yourself to that standard. Follow #doingitall with a healthy dose of skepticism. Further, even if the person you're comparing yourself to isn't an expert (perhaps a friend on Facebook), remember that you probably aren't getting the full picture of their successes and struggles. It's fine to be inspired and motivated by others online, but challenge yourself to also question whether that individual is really the appropriate comparator.

Finally, be a role model for honesty in social media. Real Simple magazine championed a "Get Real on the Internet" week, which challenged us to post pictures, tweets and status updates that share our real (read: imperfect) selves with the world using the hashtag #rsgetreal.

Being real doesn't mean only airing your dirty little secrets, but also celebrating legitimate and hard-won successes in work-life balance. By creating an online community in which women are empowered to share honest images of their lives, we each contribute to a future of more realistic and healthy social comparisons.

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