Ask Jenny Bruso
September 18, 2019
By Jenny Bruso | @jennybruso
From the creator of Unlikely Hikers, an online community for the underrepresented outdoorsperson.
Dear Jenny Bruso,
Instagram makes me feel really bad about myself. I think I need help, but I’m too embarrassed to talk to any of my close friends about it. My self-esteem is deeply affected by how well my posts do or don’t do.
Worse, I feel like it’s having an effect on my outdoor life. While I’m trail running, I often think about Instagram captions and I’m not as in the moment. Sometimes, I can’t sleep at night because I can’t get off of my phone even though nothing I’m looking at is that important or interesting. The way I pick up my phone and start scrolling without thought makes me feel like an out of control zombie! Sometimes, I’ll go to the bathroom at work just to check.
I think I’m addicted. I’m hoping you’ll tell me that isn’t possible…?
I’ve tried leaving my phone at home when I go out for a trail run, and I always feel better, but my boyfriend and mom worry when I don’t update them with the play-by-play when I’m out alone. What can I do? Why am I having this problem while everyone around me seems to have control of it?!
-Social Media Loser
This email should’ve come with a trigger warning because It Is So Not Just You going through this. I’d wager that you have folks in your life who are also dealing with this in some form or another. Many people are.
Social media is designed to be addictive. Algorithms influence what stays at the top of our feeds based on how quickly engagement happens. Lack of immediate engagement makes posts fall away. Posts in the feed aren’t in sequential order to keep us checking for what might pop up next. Our brains become addicted to the little dopamine blasts they get every time we have “good” notifications. When we don’t get them, we experience withdrawal, which can feel like a void or depression even if we’re not actually seeing anything “bad.”
This is about as science-y as I’m going to get about this because even if that helps make sense of some things for you, it doesn’t do much for healing or having better boundaries. It isn’t as simple as just putting our phones away. Many aspects of our culture are dependent on our phones these days, like alarm clocks, the apps we use to arrange transportation and appointments and, of course, there’s the immediacy of text communication, etc. We are expected to be plugged in.
I talked to a therapist friend of mine about your letter, and they told me that nearly all of their clients discuss social media in many of the ways you’re describing, especially when it comes to lack of impulse control and worsening self-esteem. They explained that it’s unlikely these feelings are coming out of nowhere and can be indicative of preexisting self-esteem issues, trauma, or addictive behaviors. Could any of that be true for you? If you think you need help, I really hope you’ll follow through. Therapy is normal. I wish I could make everyone go! And it should be free! It doesn’t deserve the stigma it can have within certain upbringings and cultures. The idea is deeply entrenched in American culture that if we’re not in control of everything all the time, we’re weak or failing. It makes it difficult for us to get the help we need.
Beyond therapy and feelings of addiction, the reality is that a lot of what we see online is bad for us. Social media, especially Instagram, is like this non-stop highlight reel of everyone living their best lives. I’d say it’s worse when it comes to outdoorsy social media, but I may be projecting just a little. It’s often about getting the perfect shot and “good vibes” and looking a certain way while doing whatever one likes to do. It can be a lot of bullshit. If it wasn’t, all of the trail runners you’d be seeing would be red-faced and sweaty and there’d be more cellulite. Photoshop and other apps are making it easier to erase or blur the things about our bodies and faces we don’t love.
And that’s fine, do whatever you want with your body, post only positive captions if you want, pretend you’re laughing at something hilarious even though it’s only you out there taking selfies. We’re all ultimately responsible for our own behavior, though it’s also true that this performance can negatively impact the person posting and those scrolling.
I have to have really strong boundaries with social media because being online, especially on Instagram, is a huge part of my job. I’ve found a few things that work for me. I rarely stick to all of these and I’m imperfect with most, but they keep me accountable to myself:
• Turn OFF all push notifications. You don’t need to know the very second a single person engages with your accounts.
• Don’t go on social media first thing in the morning or last thing at night so the mind worms don’t wiggle their way into your first and last thoughts of the day.
• Create boundaries and stick to them as best as you can. What if you only went on from 9am9pm? Work on shrinking that window, or break it up into blocks, like 10am-1pm and 4pm-7pm.
• Set a timer for scrolling. Even 5 minutes will feel like a lot of time when you schedule it.
• Try leaving your phone in another room when you don’t need it. This is a great practice when eating meals or spending time with others. How often do you go on your phone just because it’s within reach?
• Don’t sleep with your phone in the same room. Get an actual alarm clock! • Does what you post make you feel bad? Explore that discomfort. How might you change the way you post to feel more true to yourself?
• When you see something that evokes bad feelings, break them down. Are you comparing yourself? What are you projecting onto this person about your own life that has nothing to do with them? What are they doing that might be “for the ‘gram?”
Loser, you’ve done something really good already: You told someone. This was your start. Please continue. There will be a lot of people who read this who need help, too. Thank you for starting the conversation.
You’ve got this.
Do you have questions for Jenny? Hit her up on Instagram at @jennybruso for a chance to have your questions answered.