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What You See Isn’t Always What You Get: 3 Tips to Avoid Social Media Envy

I was at Sonic the other morning — and once again noticed the picture of their cheeseburger on the menu, enticing me to order the fresh, bursting with flavor sandwich. It looked absolutely delicious. Crisp bacon. Juicy tomato.

I smiled, knowing that what I’d likely receive if I ordered one wasn’t exactly what the picture suggested, and left with my usual iced tea. That’s advertising for you.

The same day, one of my patients was talking to her husband about finances and getting their debt under control, while also sharing dreams and goals.  “I want a nicer yard. I want the one on Pinterest.” Then she looked at me, and shyly smiled. “I love Pinterest.”

I thought about the cheeseburger, and wondered what that Pinterest yard looked like a few days after the picture was snapped.

The potential effect of scrolling through social media…

There’s nothing psychologically unhealthy about scrolling through Pinterest or Instagram, seeing what people are up to — getting creative ideas for design. But if you’re insecure or unhappy with yourself, what appears to be in everyone else’s yard can seem vastly better than your own.

You can easily absorb a daily dose of shame. Your life should be more organized, cleaner, prettier, more exciting. And there’s a picture to prove it.

You see multitudes of vacation pictures taken by friends of friends from exotic places around the world, and suddenly your trip to visit a friend in Des Moines can fizzle. You read the posts of proud parents with kids going to elite colleges, while your child is struggling to get through high school. You see how much weight Joanne has lost simply by slugging down protein shakes. She’s even become a spokesperson for the drinks. You can’t seem to lose five pounds without gaining back seven.

Frankly, people lie on social media.

They paint their lives the way they want to be seen, but not necessarily the way they really are. They lie by commission. They purposefully lead others to believe what isn’t true. And they lie by omission. They simply leave out the less-glowing details.

A college professor recently told me about a conversation he overheard between two of his graduate students. They’d both received their graded papers from him, and were comparing scores. One said, “Oh I got an 82.” The other girl nodded, “I’m so excited. I got a 91.” The professor startled a bit, and looked back at his grading. The second girl had received a 78, not a 91.

You don’t know what is someone’s truth.

You don’t hear how the couple fought their way through Bora Bora. You don’t realize that the kid who got into Harvard really wanted to go a state university but was pressured by her parents. She’s already having horrific panic attacks. You don’t know Joanna has lost weight countless times, regained it, and that her husband has threatened to leave her if she doesn’t keep it off.

You don’t know the backstory.

The dance of social media and perfectionism…

Perfectionism makes this far worse. If you’re one of those people who clean up before the housekeeper comes, you already know the kind of immense pressure you put on yourself.

One of the gifts of being a therapist is hearing the backstory — of realizing that appearances are often just that — appearances.

If you’re a perfectionistic, then you’ll work hard to maintain the appearance that all is well, often at a significant cost to you. Gordon Flett, a lead researcher of perfectionism and co-author of the new book, “Perfectionism: A Relational Approach to Conceptualization, Assessment and Treatment,” stated in an interview in New York Magazine,Other than those people who have suffered greatly because of their perfectionism or the perfectionism of a loved one, the average person has very little understanding or awareness of how destructive perfectionism can be.” 

It may seem like a desirable trait. And it can be when it’s well-modulated and hasn’t become a way of masking depression.

But the hooks of social media are hard enough to avoid getting caught on. Just the comparison alone can be depressing.

How can you handle it better?

Three tips to challenge perfectionism and normalize social media…

1. Don’t romanticize what you see. Normalize it.

Let’s say the Instagram picture is of two people, their backs to the camera, watching a gorgeous sunset over some lake. Put yourself there but don’t romanticize it. Sure — it’s a fabulous sunset. Yes, they’re holding hands. That’s wonderful. But someone’s stomach is growling. Or one of them has a cold. There are normal everyday things that are happening, things that will humanize the picture — so you don’t make a Hollywood movie out of what you see. Hopefully you then won’t put yourself down for not having the same. Real life is far from Hollywood.

2. If you tend to be a perfectionistic, intentionally try to do something in a mediocre fashion.

You can challenge your own perfectionistic bent by having a little fun, and allowing yourself to do something not very well. At first, you have to choose something that doesn’t have a lot of meaning for you, such as not wearing earrings, or not cleaning your car. Simply try on for size what it’s like to go a little easier on yourself, and not have rigid expectations of what you or your life should look like. If you really want to challenge that need to be perfect, take a picture of mediocre cookies or your messy car — and caption it, “My real life.”

3. Be motivated by someone you admire, rather than allowing envy to overwhelm you. 

Sometimes you can get stuck in jealousy or even envy — that someone’s life seems to be what you want for yourself. Allow that to motivate you and wake you up to possibilities that are out there — not get you stuck in bitterness or self-contempt. Realize we’re all on a spectrum. Someone may very well be out there, looking at your life and admiring you or your last post on Instagram.

If you wonder if you have Perfectly Hidden Depression, you can take this quiz   If you have either depression or PHD, please seek help from your doctor or a therapist.

If someone has been hanging in there with you for years, and loving you well, click here for “Marriage Is Not For Chickens,” the new gift book by Dr. Margaret!

You can hear more about depression and many other topics by listening to Dr. Margaret’s new podcast, SelfWork with Dr. Margaret Rutherford. Subscribe to this website and receive her weekly posts as well as her podcasts, plus Dr. Margaret’s eBook, “Seven Commandments of Good Therapy.”


What You See Isn’t Always What You Get: 3 Tips to Avoid Social Media Envy

Dr. Margaret Rutherford

Dr. Margaret Rutherford is a clinical psychologist who's practiced in Fayetteville, Arkansas for twenty-five years. Her passion for researching Perfectly Hidden Depression began in 2014 and she's currently writing a book to be published next year by New Harbinger. Her work has been featured on The Huffington Post, The Mighty and The Good Men Project, among others. She's the author of "Marriage Is Not For Chickens", a blogger (Https:// and podcaster (SelfWork with Dr. Margaret Rutherford). She welcomes your questions and comments --

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APA Reference
Rutherford, D. (2018). What You See Isn’t Always What You Get: 3 Tips to Avoid Social Media Envy. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 17, 2019, from


Last updated: 5 Jun 2018
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