Just the other day a friend and I were talking about our propensity towards “comparing mind” when we are on social media. Neither of us has spent an obsessive amount of time on it, but since we have each started our own businesses, and set up “business pages” on Facebook, we find that we are on it more and more. Not only that, but one of the main ways to stay connected with colleagues and referral sources is through social media. So there, you have it—in this day in age, once you are in business, it’s nearly impossible to avoid. And even without being in business, it has become the accepted norm to rely on social media to stay up-to-date on everyone’s lives who you know, ranging from close friends and family to mere acquaintances. Learning how to integrate this technology in a way that jives with the soul seems critical.
I’ve spent the last ten years delving into the study of mindfulness, based in Buddhist philosophy, along with many other western psychotherapists. I’m certainly not alone in my interest and curiosity about how these eastern principles might ease our current suffering in the fast-paced environment we inhabit. Buddhist philosophy is a funny thing. After ten years of study and practice, I have come to discover the following life-altering fact—brace yourself—this is big: I have the same afflictions as most humans—I like things that are pleasant and easy, and I cling to these experiences, with white knuckles. I know, shocking. And here's another confession: I have the tendency to entertain many fanciful comparisons about the ways in which others’ lives are better than my own. I feel a little funny even admitting this, for as soon as the words hit the screen, I am bombarded by images of those who are suffering much more than I and in much more dire circumstances. So with every idea, there is also its opposite, and somewhere in the middle lies the truth.
That said, research tells us that social media affects some of the same parts of the brain as say, alcohol, drugs, sex, shopping, food, and other potentially addictive endeavors (the reward and impulse control centers, among others). It’s not that social media in and of itself is addictive, but the way in which it is set up for us to engage sends feel-good neurotransmitters, so we keep at it. I know the pattern all too well—I get a like on something I’ve posted and I am instantly reinforced for posting. I can feel it in my body. The excitement that someone noticed, the feeling of validation. Need more of that. But the reinforcement is intermittent, which ensures that my use of social media becomes chronic. I don’t always get the number of likes I want or have come to expect, and I need more. The initial hit is no longer sustaining my high. Must find a way to be catchier, funnier, or more likeable. So then I try again another day and I get more hits and I don’t really know why or what made this post so much better than the last, but it’s worth another shot. Ok, maybe this sounds a little dramatic, but really, is this not relatable? Did the developers mean to do this? Probably.
So there are a couple of concepts at work—the compulsion to check how many people “liked” you today and the comparisons that arise when scrolling through the newsfeed. Comparing mind is that part of our minds that gets recruited when it senses that we don’t have enough—that our lives as they are being lived are insufficient. This usually occurs in direct response to a felt experience we have had of someone else’s life, and we perceive the other person to be within our reach. For instance, I am not comparing my life to Oprah’s, but I am comparing my life to the people with whom I grew up, went to school, was family friends. Social media sets it up perfectly. Our senses are awakened with pictures and videos and sound coming from others’ experiences that are not our own, but that feel so enticing, we wish we did own them. I see my “friends’” kitchens, their porches, their rooms, their cars, their outings, their intimate vacations, their career successes, and all of this is captured in a moment’s time without any context for the surrounding moments, which may have been a living hell, but my brain just computed it all as “perfect” and therefore, a great improvement on my own lived experience. The problem is it’s all a farce. It separates us from one another, when in reality, the thing that makes us feel whole again is to know that we are not alone. And yet with this set-up, we feel so alone. The system is advertised as a system for bringing people together, but actually, it activates the part of our deep inner selves that wonders if we are enough. The more we compare our lives to others, the more evidence we gather for not being enough. The rabbit hole is far from illusive. Where do we head? Straight for anxiety, depression, unhappiness, worthlessness, and hiding or more consumption in an effort to feel whole again. And the cycle won’t end, until we realize that it’s happening.
So, what to do? I’ve grappled with this myself. Do I take a social media break? Do I stop following the people who I frequently compare myself to? Do I forget Facebook as a method of letting people know about my business? I don’t love the concept of blocking or avoiding, although I agree that at times breaks are both necessary and beneficial. But how can I integrate this into my life in a way that activates my prefrontal cortex—my compassion, my connection, my understanding, my creativity?
Here is what I have come up with: First, I must pause and take notice—what am I feeling in my body? Oh, that tightening again in the pit of my stomach, the shortened breath—what is that? Ah, comparing mind, you’re here. I see you. I acknowledge the pain that comes when comparing mind is up to bat and I offer up some self-compassion. Then I mindfully shift to a practice I learned while taking an online course with Pema Chödrön. One of the students who was attending the class in-person, offered that as he scrolls through Facebook’s newsfeed, he practices wishing each person well. May you be well. When I heard the idea, I found it brilliant. It's a way to act opposite and then, to feel opposite. So, I tried it and guess what? I noticed that my entire body calmed down. I could feel a sense of genuine happiness for other’s fortune and I felt genuine care for the pain. So, I stuck with the practice each time I noticed comparing mind arising. I then make it a practice to check in with myself to see whether I actually wish to spend more time scrolling through updates and images, or if now is a good time for a break. I usually take a break, coming into awareness and realizing that I had been pulled into the social media quicksand and would like to spend some time being present in my life as it unfolds moment by moment. I look around at all of the things I have that I have always wanted—people who love me, friends and family, a beautiful child, and a warm home, and I note the gratitude that arises. What a lovely shift. Does this always happen? No. Am I always successful at catching comparing mind before I feel the impending doom? No. But I am much more aware than I used to be. And much more able to turn my mind and make this a practice of self-acceptance, self-nurturance, and then, genuine care and compassion for others. Ultimately, it feels like an opening, rather than a closing. An open heart is a wise heart and that is what I’m going for.