Do you know, without looking, how many “friends” you have on Facebook? I have 664, collected from all different facets of my 40-year life (and I delight in how multifaceted my life is). I have only recently started to wonder if that’s a paltry number. I realized that many of my “friends” have more than a thousand. That’s four digits. Have I ever met that many people? I should get out more. What am I even doing with my life?
And while I’m at it, why do I even have that many friends on Facebook to begin with? I am not the best at keeping in touch. I think I regularly interact with only 1/3 of my FB friends. And by interact I mostly mean I lounge in my PJ’s and scroll through my feed and like and (occasionally) comment. While I do love to keep in touch and value the connection, I am a lazy friend. Facebook allows me the illusion that I am keeping up with them and their lives, absolving me of duties central to true friendship like picking up the phone to make a call.
I am lazy with some and flat-out negligent with others. Some of my friends’ lives intersected with mine for only a brief, fleeting moment in time. It’s fun to continue to follow what they are up to, but is it borne from nostalgia for the good ol’ days or sheer morbid curiosity? It’s not quite clear, but either way, I remain tethered to them and them to me, watching our mutually carefully-curated cyber-lives unfold like glossy magazine pictorials. Is that really staying in touch with an old friend?
Thinking about all this depresses me, and I’m not alone. Multiple studies have linked a diminished sense of well-being to the amount of time individuals spend on Facebook. One of the most robust studies, published last year by Harvard Business Review, concluded that this link was not only demonstrably strong, but also causal: more time on Facebook leads to poorer mental health.
I have routinely taken a break from Facebook for Lent every year, with great benefits to my mental health. This year, however, I launched a business that requires some degree of social media presence. Also, I figured I had already just given up my breasts and my hair, so I was all sacrificed-out. But I’ve missed the nebulous sense of freedom and lack of melancholy that usually characterizes my time away from social media.
The leading hypothesis about why Facebook makes us sadder is rooted in social comparison: other people are more beautiful, happier, more popular, funnier, fitter, and more successful than we are. Even though we all instinctively know these pages and images are not reflective of the full story, what happens below the threshold of our conscious experience? What internal processes are at work when we turn from our devices full of gorgeous, successful friends sucking the marrow out of life and catch a glimpse of ourselves -slouching and tired- reflected in the microwave door as we scream at our children to eat the chicken nuggets!?
Since I’m not taking a break, I’ve been experimenting with a different approach on social media. I’m trying to be a little more honest, to not pretend life is always a beautifully documented dream. I have cancer and it’s not pretty. I have no hair, am taking copious amounts of bloating steroids, and get chemo pumped into my body every Monday. It’s not the pinnacle of cuteness. I have been sharing pics and snippets of the less-attractive aspects of my life. I might lose some friends who’d rather not become mired in my muck, but I’m okay with that. Let’s call it ugly-sharing.
What I was not prepared for was an unintended consequence of my ugly-sharing: a new twist on unfavorable social comparison. A dear friend shared that she was having her own hard time but in the midst of her suffering she realized, “my troubles seem so inconsequential compared to yours.” I know she meant it as a compliment but it seemed like a dangerous competition in which I did not want to participate; a sort of race to the bottom. I saw it as a way to shame herself out of compassion for herself. “I better snap out of it because somebody has it worse.” How absurd, I told her; pain is pain is pain.
I realized at that moment that we can always find a way to come up short when we are comparing ourselves with others. Competition brazenly rears its ugly head when we are all engaged in only showing the part of the story we wish to reveal. But competition is insidious and also lurks in dark corners waiting to prey on your insecurities, ready to make you feel inferior even if you’ve glimpsed what’s behind the curtain. Social media is competition’s breeding ground.
Although ugly -sharing has not broken competition’s spell outright, it has granted me more opportunities for real, life-changing connections. A “friend” saw my ugly-share and could instantly relate with her own ugly truth: she is battling breast cancer too. She was a childhood pal, but we had lost touch for no good reason except that our paths gradually diverged over the course of decades until social media was the sole thread that held us together.
Now we are weaving a beautiful new tapestry of support between us, and she has gone from my “friend” to my Friend. We use our experiences as reference points for each other, we compare our symptoms and emotions and drugs, but we know better than to fall into the competition trap. We know we are fighting for our lives, and we are in it together. That’s the best kind of friendship, to feel in it together, and one that was possible only because we stopped posing for our social media portraits.
It’s liberating to stop pretending. Because the truth is, none of us is making it out of this life alive. We are all in this together. All 664 of us.
“A friend is someone who knows all about you and still loves you.”- Elbert Hubbard
Dr. Emily McClatchey is a child psychologist and mother of three young children. She is the founder and creator of Kidolences,® specially-formulated care boxes to help kids manage loss and change. Send your love to a child at www.kidolences.com.