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Instagram & Comparison Culture: Healthy Ways to Use IG

Social media is weird. It feels like we all have this bizarre, adversarial love-hate relationship with it. We love to post, we love the likes, and we love to check in and see what our friends are up to, but we also can’t help but hate it. We hate the desperation for likes, how it makes us feel, and the picture-perfect lives other people seem to have.

We can’t seem to crack it. We want to unplug and appreciate the “now,” but we also want to feel included in what’s happening in the world. We want to show off our lives to our friends when we feel ours are empty and not good enough. Is it just me, or does this brand-new social media phenomenon seem to be short-circuiting our brains? What is it doing to us? 

Gilad, the author
Gilad, author of this guest post and blogger at The Overthinker's Passport

This is a comparison culture. It’s pervasive, it’s intense, and it’s backing us into a corner. It keeps us stuck between a rock and a hard place. Do we contribute, or do we unplug? Do we stay in the world of what’s happening or remove ourselves? The answer is neither. Let me explain.

What is Comparison Culture?

Comparison Culture is the phenomenon of social media pitting us against each other by making us repeatedly compare ourselves to the faked and curated versions of each other. Our friends use Instagram, Facebook, & Twitter to create a “brand” of themselves that they want the world to see.

And then we take that brand, incorporate it into our worldview, and decide that our friends’ lives are far more exciting, happy, and wholehearted than ours. Everyone’s life is distilled into a gallery version of a photoshopped supermodel: curated, filtered, contextless, and unrealistic. And the crazy part is that it's all fake. 

How Does it Work?

Because social media is a relatively new invention, people are continually devising new and creative ways to use it to boost their brand and self-esteem. Pictures that used to be spectacular or eye-catching quickly fade out of sight in the endless newsfeed scroll, so Instagrammers have developed innovative techniques to stand out. And they all feed the comparison culture beast. 


If there’s one Instagram technique I’m hugely guilty of, it’s filtering. It used to take teams of people to touch up and airbrush photos for magazine covers, but only recently did we get the tools to do it ourselves. We’ve developed digital marketing skills and become our own agencies and, as a result, have warped the images of our lives to fit the brand we want them to convey. We know model influencers don’t have wrinkles, so we smooth ours out. We see those travel influencers don’t have cloudy days, so we boost the saturation. 

Example: Boosting your pictures' saturation to make them look more beautiful & vibrant than they are. 

The issue is because we all do it, the world looks far brighter and far more vibrant on our newsfeeds than it does in real life. Suddenly, a beautiful sunset or a mountaintop view seems dull and underwhelming compared to what we’ve seen in each other's newsfeeds. The world, in reality, becomes a bit less interesting than the world online, and as a result, our world becomes a bit less attractive than other people’s worlds. 


Cropping is the intentional removal of aspects of our pictures that don’t fit the brand or tone we’re trying to set. We all crop, and we do it shamelessly. Have you ever tried to take a picture of the Eiffel Tower or the Leaning Tower of Pisa, but those pesky tourists keep getting in the way? A quick snip of the edges or a brief wait for that one millisecond of tourist-free space will do the trick. And boom. All of a sudden, you’ve posted a beautiful, serene, iconic photo of one of the world’s wonders without context and with all those annoying imperfections removed. But what does that do to us?

Example: Taking a picture of an iconic travel site without flipping the camera to show the bazillion other tourists doing the same thing. 

When we see a picture intentionally cropped to remove other tourists, garbage, or debris, we strip that picture of its reality. The crowds, the bustling nature of these places, and those annoying things that live on the fringes of your photographs are part of the experience. When you remove them, you tell the world they don’t exist.

So when I, for example, go to the Eiffel Tower or Leaning Tower of Pisa and expect it to look like it did in your picture, I’ll be disappointed and deflated by the crowds and imperfections inherent in the experience. The same will happen to you. 


Posing genuinely makes my skin crawl. We’ve all seen it. People ask their friends to take a picture of them and then stand in front of a beach, looking away mysteriously, hand in their hair as if to make it seem like it was a candid moment. And then they filter and post it with a Maya Angelou quote to give the impression that they’re deep and reflective. What bugs me in particular about posing is how transparently fake it is.

Man posing
Man posing

Example: Posting the headshot above with the caption: “Never make someone a priority when all you are to them is an option.”

To see people freeze-frame while pretending to laugh or a person pretend to walk down Fifth Avenue in Manhattan makes me cringe. It sells this horrible narrative that our actual lives aren’t good enough to take snapshots of. Instead, to get a picture of ourselves looking good while living our lives, we need to take 36 of the same photos and pick the one that looks best. Fake candids and poses remove the spontaneity of pictures and make it seem like other people’s lives are generally filled with laughter and devoid of awkward obstacles when the reality is that we all struggle with the same issues. 

Selective Posting

Selective posting is interesting because it’s less about what you do with your pictures and more about which photos you share. If you scroll through almost anyone’s Instagram feed, you’ll be bombarded with images of happy couples, adventurous hikes, beautiful sunsets, and gorgeous models. You won’t see any pictures of arguments, unhappy marriages, loneliness, anxiety, or depression. That’s because people post what they want the world to know about them. 

Example: Posting a picture of a beautiful beach sunset and not posting a photo of moving into a new apartment. 

In essence, selective posting removes the negative aspects of our lives in favor of the brands we want others to see about us. We want to appear as the fun-loving model type who flies to Thailand on a whim or the happy couple who travels the world together. We never want people to know about our more negative moments, such as our breakups, boring jobs, or financial struggles. We keep those things locked in a box just for us to see so everyone else can still assume that our lives are as glamorous as we wish.

How Does Comparison Culture Affect Us?

Comparison Culture is a hugely problematic issue in our world today, and there are tons of studies that back that up. Many psychologists have noticed that the more connected we are to our social media, the higher our incidences of depression and anxiety likely are. There have been dozens of scientific studies that examine the psychological effects of internet addiction on our minds. I think that there are three big reasons why Comparison Culture is dangerous. 

FOMO (Fear of Missing Out)

For those who don’t know what FOMO is, it’s shorthand for the “fear of missing out.” The fact that this word was only developed within the past few years is a huge testament to its relation to social media. The fear of missing out begins with scrolling through our newsfeeds and seeing all the fun things people around the world are doing. Now, did FOMO exist before Instagram? 100%. But did it get worse since it became popular? Definitely. 

Our world's pre-social media existed within our little bubble. We knew about what our circle of friends and family was doing, and that’s about it. We never knew that a loose acquaintance was partying in Mykonos or that some random influencer was out trekking in Argentina. Our circle of comparison was much, much smaller. Now, however, that we have people from around the globe within our daily sights, our circle expands globally and shows us every little thing we’re missing out on. And with all the fun stuff other people do, how can we not feel bad?

In addition to our wider circle of “friends,” the very fact that social media is a constant highlight reel of other people’s lives triggers the FOMO in us. I can be doing some of the coolest hiking and traveling that the world has to offer, but if I see someone else doing the same thing with more friends or with a spouse, my experience suddenly seems diminished. It’s a lose-lose game. The more you participate, the more deeply entrenched you get in that pesky trap. 

Mental Contrarianism

One of the most irritating parts about social media to me is that I know that I’m being fed enhanced versions of people’s lives, but I buy into it anyway. It’s the classic logic vs. emotion dilemma: On a logical level, I know that what I’m seeing is a highly filtered, unrealistic version of a person's life. But on a deeply emotional level, my envy is real, and I feel powerless to control it. 

This drives me up the wall because I am aware of the frustration I’m putting myself through, and I still can’t find a way to remove myself from it. I think many of us feel this way: we know what we’re seeing is fake, but still, somehow believe deep down that there’s a lifestyle we’re missing out on. We kick ourselves for buying into it while still buying into it anyway. 


I think every argument surrounding social media comes down to the one dead-end we all share: we’re not going to delete our Instagrams. We’re not going to block our friends and family. We’re not going to magically tune out everything online that’s happening around us. That’s just the direction the world is going, and it can be infuriating. We’re essentially drinking the Kool-Aid daily despite knowing that it’s making us sick. Of course, that’ll have detrimental effects on our brains. 

IG likes

So What Can We Do About It?

I know, at this point, things seem rather bleak. Social media isn’t going away, and neither is its propensity to fuel Comparison Culture. So, we must ask ourselves what we can do about it. How do we get these logical arguments to stick? How can we reinforce the notion that social media isn’t real and that our lives are extraordinary, just as they are? I’m not sure.

Cultivating a healthy relationship with Instagram is challenging because it requires cultivating a healthy relationship with yourself. All the issues we face regarding social media are just symptoms of much bigger internal insecurities that we’re not dealing with. But I think there are some tools we can use to help get the ball rolling on self-love and build enough momentum to make positive strides. 

Ask Yourself Some Hard Questions

In my opinion, comparison culture is rooted in a collective deep insecurity. When we see other people seemingly living their best lives, all of our shame, worries, and concerns jump into action. The only way to tame those feelings is to understand why those pictures elicit such a reaction in us in the first place.

So the next time you’re scrolling through your feed or posting a picture and feel that wave of envy bubbling up inside you, take a second and ask yourself some critical questions. 

  • Why am I removing the bad parts of this picture?
  • Why am I boosting the saturation or cropping out the crowd?
  • What gaps am I trying to fill in this story that I’m unhappy with?
  • What do I wish was true about this picture that isn’t? 

These questions are difficult to ask and even more challenging to answer, but they’re essential because they’re the keys to the root of the problem. If insecurities are a gunshot wound, lying about the quality of your life is a Band-Aid, and you can’t treat a gunshot wound with a Band-Aid. For me, this has been the most positive and beneficial way to handle my social media envy, not only because it reframes my relationship with it but because it puts other people in context as well. 

Add a Mental * to Your Newsfeed

When emotion trumps reason, sometimes you have to inject reason back into it. This logical mental asterisk is the second most useful tool I’ve found when combating Comparison Culture. Put a little * next to the images you see on your feed to remind yourself that this isn’t the whole picture. This is the filtered, curated version of a person they want you to see, and they’re posting these highlights purposefully to convey a particular lifestyle. Keep that logical argument in your back pocket, and remind yourself daily that these people whose lives you envy feel the same way you do. 

Recognize the Algorithm

When it comes to likes and comments, remember that Instagram uses an algorithm to calculate your visibility. Therefore, the quality of your posts generally has little to do with their popularity. In short, pictures don’t necessarily get likes because they’re good.

They get them because of a complex and impenetrable algorithm that has everything to do with the Instagram platform and nothing to do with you. It’s not your fault if your posts don’t get much attention. It’s not because people don't like you or what you posted isn’t interesting. It’s that Instagram controls what your followers see. For example, if you have 600 followers, Instagram will likely only show your pictures to 75 of them. 

I can’t tell you how many bathroom selfies I’ve seen that get over 50,000 likes when my pictures from the tops of volcanoes get 100. Practice removing yourself from the blame. It’ll take a lot of weight off your chest.  

I Don’t Know

If I'm candid, I’m not too sure what the future holds for social media. I think that people are beginning to catch onto its harmful effects, which will hopefully spur some change. Instagram recently released a test version of a feature that wouldn’t show other people how many likes you’ve gotten on a post. That makes me hopeful.  However, we must remember that social media is a recent experiment in which we’re all participating.

Never before have we been able to be our own modeling agencies and roll out our own red carpets. We're in uncharted territory, so I don’t think we know how things will turn out. I’d love to hear from you. What do you think? Do you think social media is as harmful as I do? What can we do to fix some of the problems it has created?

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