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The Instagram Asterisk: How to Escape the Comparison Trap

the instagram feed of creator of Anxious & Abroad

Pictures are literally everywhere nowadays. Whether they’re on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or this very blog post, there’s no escaping these little snippets of life - moments caught in freeze-frame that tell the story of our lives.

But is that what they do, really?

More recently, social media has changed the game of how pictures are taken and presented. Instagrammers and influencers spend time and money perfecting their shots, posing for them, and simulating life where life is supposed to be naturally lived -- and it’s causing an alarming phenomenon that affects us millennials in particular: the Comparison Trap.

What is the Comparison Trap?

Simply, the comparison trap is the cycled feeling of inadequacy brought about from comparing oneself to others. You know the feeling I’m talking about - seeing someone’s Instagram story, getting instant FOMO because you’re not there, and feeling like the perfectly adequate thing you’re doing is suddenly dull and unsatisfying. It’s pervasive, it’s damaging, and social media has brought it to full force, making thousands, if not millions, of people feel like their lives are mediocre in comparison to their friends’. And the worst part is that it’s a big lie.

Why is it so bad?

the beautiful sunset view from the top of the Tiger Cave Temple in Krabi Thailand
The view from the top of the Tiger Cave Temple in Krabi, Thailand

The comparison trap happens because of how we respond to social media. Rather than showing our followers a particular memory the way it happened, we edit, crop and whitewash it so that the result is something impressive and appealing. The context is removed so that the grueling hike, for example, isn’t a part of the beautiful view. What happens as a result, is that when we see a picture online, we’re seeing, quite literally, 1 millisecond of someones life - without context, and with filters. And without even giving it a thought, and through no fault of our own, we’ve bought into it.

The trouble with the comparison trap is that rather than seeing someone’s life for what it really is, we’re seeing the “brand” they want us to believe their life is like -- and it’s everywhere. You have the Insta model who seems to live exclusively at 5-star beach resorts, and the travel nomad who somehow has enough money to see the world for years at a time. They post the positives and ignore the more complex negatives, so that their brand remains appealing. And then, because our news feeds are filled to the brim with stunning travel shots and impossibly gorgeous models, we try to play the part ourselves. The internet has caused us to warp picture galleries into a constant competition for likes, comments and approval. Next thing we know we have fake candids, staged pictures, and pared-down, context-less images, that we can’t help but compare ourselves to. All of a sudden our jobs, our trips, our weekends seem dull and lame compared to those of others, all of whom are experiencing the same exact feelings of inadequacy.

a group of american and Canadian hikers climbing all 1237 steps to the top of the Tiger Cave Temple in Krabi, Thailand
The unposted pic of us exhausted, climbing the 1237 steps to the top.

So how do we escape the comparison trap?

The comparison trap is tricky to escape, mostly because we all have social media accounts that we have no intention of deleting. Since we can’t (or won’t) just deactivate our Instagrams, the trick is to put a little mental asterisk next to the images we see to remind ourselves that we’re not getting the full picture. We’re not seeing the bad (the arguments, the hardships, the debt, the breakups). We’re not seeing the ordinary (the 9-5 workday or the Sunday Netflix binge). We’re only seeing the highlight reels -- the strategically chosen, most impressive, and highly filtered moments of people’s lives. By reminding ourselves of that, we can give us a much-needed break from the constant one-upmanship that social media has kicked up. And most importantly, we can free up our photography to go back to its original intention - to tell stories and capture beautiful (and occasionally not so beautiful) moments in our lives.

A Quick example: The Lost City Trek in Colombia

1. Instagram-worthy shots of the trek

2. Intentionally left-out struggles of the hike

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