A few weeks ago I published my first blog post entitled, The Pressure to Feel Perfect which introduced the idea that women that I frequently encounter in both my private practice and in my daily life seem to be holding themselves to unrealistic standards. Because it seems that so many of you can relate to this topic and are struggling with how to manage these outsized pressures, I have decided to publish a series of blog posts that address the pressure that we all feel to “have it all” and “be it all” (or to at least look the part).
It is hard to deny that the weight of modern demands borne by women in our fast-paced society can feel crushing at times. Yet many women, either knowingly or unknowingly, try to conceal the toll it is actually taking on them to keep all the balls in the air. This desire to conceal, to airbrush reality, is perfectly understandable given that so many of us co-exist in a parallel digital universe suffused with photoshopped images of our friends, acquaintances, and “influencers” who are seemingly having the time of their lives (oftentimes in beautiful, exotic locations). In these images, the women truly do seem to have it all. Perfect hair, perfect partners, perfect kids. Like a cadre of trained olympic figure skaters, they make these seemingly impossible feats look effortless.
Meanwhile, as social media consumers we are typically forbidden from peeking behind the so-called digital curtain; we aren’t privy to the tantruming toddler off camera, the featured woman’s mounting marital dissatisfaction, the dirty dishes piled high in the sink. Instead, painstakingly curated images reinforce our feeling that anything less than perfect will not do. Flawed images are deigned unfit for human consumption. It’s no wonder we are left feeling like we are coming up short.
Shiny internet images seem to provide a sharp contrast to our comparatively more pedestrian and mundane lives, inevitably conjuring up primal feelings of envy and shame and dialing up our dissatisfaction with our own unique circumstances. A kind of alchemy occurs where the “as if” world of the internet – these digital pixels on the screen – produces real biochemical changes in our central nervous system. What at first appeared to be two separate parallel universes, the digital and the real, seem to collapse upon each other.
In order to better understand the effects of social media on our brains, psychologist Melissa Hunt conducted a University of Pennsylvania study that looked at how social media usage can produce fears of missing out (more popularly referred to as “FOMO”). In the UPENN study, one group of participants limited their time on social media to thirty minutes a day, while a control group was granted permission to use Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram as much as they liked. The researchers tracked the participants’ social media time automatically via iPhone battery usage screenshots, and participants completed surveys about their mood and well-being. After three weeks, the participants who restricted their social media usage said that they felt less depressed and lonely than people who had no social media limits. Hunt concluded that the reason subjects tended to feel more depressed after spending too much time on social media was a result of comparing their lives with the curated lives depicted online and concluding that their lives were inferior. Hunt’s results lend support to the old adage, “Comparison is the thief of joy”, at least when it comes to social media usage.
Given this highly curated universe of social media, it makes sense that so many of us would feel pressured to conform to a certain stereotypical image of what a woman or what a mother should look or act like. As a result, many women feel implicit social pressure to literally and figuratively “smooth out the wrinkles”; they live in fear that one small misstep will result in the whole set of dominoes toppling down. This fear dictates that one wrong move – one missed RSVP, one missed PTA meeting, one missed work deadline – will result in being deemed a “bad employee,” a “bad friend,” or, the worst of all possible fates, the dreaded “bad mother.”
Not surprisingly, for many women this underlying sense of fear and dread is like a bad movie soundtrack on loop that accompanies their daily activities but, like any persistent background noise, tends to bob up and down along the surface of consciousness. This low-level chronic fear and anxiety often hides in plain sight while fueling our sense of free floating anxiety that feels hard to pinpoint or even name but that nonetheless results in a sense of unease. Sound familiar? If so, take solace in the fact that you are not alone. More women than you realize are experiencing a similar conundrum.
In my next installment in this blog series, I will outline the three types of perfectionism that we all tend to grapple with. And in my final blog post in this series, I will uncover the ways in which perfectionism can unwittingly impact our self-esteem. I will also suggest some ways that we can try to preserve some of our precious self-worth in the midst of these insidious societal pressures we all face.
In the meantime, try to remind yourself that your worth is not based on how many likes your photoshopped pics received on Instagram but rather is based largely on how you treat those around you, such as your spouse, your parents, your friends, the waitress, etc.. Try logging off of social media even for just a day and go for a walk with someone you love and ask about their day (and listen, truly listen, to their response). Check in with yourself afterwards to see how you feel. I have a strong hunch that you and your loved ones will surely be better for it.
Perhaps the Dalai Lama put it best when he reminded us, “Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.” I believe this sentiment should apply even to ourselves. We can carry that mantra with us into the New Year.