Recently, I ventured into unchartered territory and decided to get a ‘finsta’ account (short for ‘fake Instagram’, this is a secondary profile for close friends, where a painstakingly curated feed is usurped by hungover selfies and out-of-focus outfits) as a way to combat anxiety surrounding my habitual need to compare and contrast my achievements with those of my peers. In hindsight, this was an act of defiance as a result of the ‘sleep when you’re dead’ mentality that millennials and generation Z seem to harbour.
A quick scroll through social media right now and you’ll see your feed cluttered with a cocktail of posts varying from professional achievements, to personal goals and triumphs; it would be all too easy to assume everyone is more accomplished, happy and self-assured than you are. The need to seek validation through social media when it comes to our working relationships and successes is more prevalent than ever. Our CVs have been digitised and left to the world wide web, and the overspill into real life has resulted in putting ourselves at risk of feeling inadequate if we aren’t reaching the goals we’ve set ourselves.
We simply aren’t supposed to be good at everything—and that’s OK. But it’s one thing telling ourselves this and another genuinely believing it.
London-based model and journalist Simran Randhawa, 25, opted for the same coping mechanism after frequently comparing herself to others on Instagram. “I made [my finsta account] just to post unabashedly,” she says. “Being on Instagram was becoming a chore. As much as people may not want to admit it, there comes a point when someone’s got their shine, and [while] you’re happy for them, there’s a part of you that’s like, ‘Well, why have I not got my own [shine]?’ or ‘[maybe] I’m not working as hard?’’’
Having embarked on a new professional chapter just before the pandemic—including launching a lifestyle newsletter for creatives—Randhawa explains that lockdown was the ideal period to reflect. “For a lot of us, this time has put into perspective the paths we’re taking,” she says. “It comes down to the prioritisation of work. We attach a lot of worth and identity to our work, so when you meet someone new, the conversation will [instantly] be, ‘What do you do?’ Your worth in society is placed upon what you do. [Now] I’m going to take time to slow down.”
Our relationship to work pre-pandemic
Since its inception in 2010, Instagram has become a virtual space for people to post all facets of their life, from decorating interior spaces to catching up with loved ones and showcasing newfound skills. Twitter, once a place to share fleeting thoughts (maybe a meme or two), is now fraught with negative abuse partly due to anonymous trolls. Now, curating our social-media feeds has somewhat become a fully fledged commitment and we’re at a point where many of us struggle to switch off. Instead, we’re stuck in a never-ending cycle of polished presentation; editing our lives to fill Instagram squares up with professional highs, lucrative side hustles and glossy personal posts. Everything is up for promotion.
In May 2019, a survey by Deloitte revealed that millennials and generation Z felt increasingly pessimistic about their futures. The research showed we weren’t “any less ambitious than previous generations.” In fact, we are passionate about everything from “climate change to the environment” and “more than half [of us] want to earn high salaries and be wealthy” but our “priorities have evolved, or at least been delayed,” as we’re more in favour of exploring the world, undeniably spurred on by what we consume online.
This feeling, no doubt, is familiar to the majority of people, but particularly for younger generations who spend a vast amount of time engaging online. “When you’re looking at the goals of young people today, it centres more around fame, wealth, and celebrity, whereas decades ago the goal was mainly family oriented,” shares Cambridge University mental health researcher Dr Olivia Remes. “The question with this modernisation of society has moved to, ‘What can I do for myself?’” And social media plays a crucial part in this shift.
You can't save somebody else until you save yourself first. And how do you save yourself first? By believing in yourself.
— Dr. Olivia Remes (@OliviaRoxann) May 25, 2020
How the pandemic has impacted our online presence and working life
Covid-19 has rocked the world this year resulting in the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, leaving us all nursing scars that will take years to heal. Grappling with the need for constant self-validation, honing in on online personas and creating aesthetics has swiftly become a way of marketing ourselves. Naturally, it increased tenfold during lockdown as our online presence remained the best way to connect remotely.
Zoom fatigue quickly ensued and burn-out became a reality. A Smartsheet study found that working from home hit millennials the hardest and so we worked out the kinks of this new normal via social media. Suddenly, Instagram feeds were inundated with posts of homemade banana bread (as it stands, the hashtag has 1.6m posts), while TikTok made moguls out of generation Z, such as 19-year-old Addison Rae, a dancer/makeup whiz who launched her own beauty line in August.
We’re fuelled by a reality presented to us with endless opportunities, partly down to social media and a progressive society. According to Dr Remes, this has created an unhealthy, fast-paced online presence. “Everyone is pointing out these perfect lives, which don’t represent reality and that’s in stark contrast to the role models of decades ago,” she says.
The long-term repercussions of not having a centralised core friendship group may also be detrimental to our routines (in other words, if you have close acquaintances you haven’t seen for a while this could be adding to your stress levels). “What protects our mental health from stress is being embedded in strong social networks,” Dr Remes explains. “If you have friends, then that buffers the impact of stress on your mental health. However, because communities have been breaking down—due to the emphasis on the self—when we’re going through stressful periods, we can no longer rely on other people as we once could.”
Establishing professional routines during a new normal
At the height of the pandemic, many of us looked to social media as a way of seeking immediate relationships with friends and family. Instead, what we found was a rampant need to pick up new skills and cooking, shares New York-based model and fashion PR Imani Randolph. “People were baking banana bread almost 24/7, but not long after [that], I felt as if there was a retaliation moment where people said, ‘It’s OK if you do nothing,’ which put my mind at ease a bit.”
“With the [various] apps available on social media, it can seem easy to build a platform for yourself and be known,” she continues. “The intense visibility of seeing other people attaining things that you might want for yourself creates an added layer of pressure because you can see people doing what you wish you were doing. Seeing other people’s content [during quarantine] made me feel like, ‘Damn it, I’m missing this opportunity.’”
When the Black Lives Matter movement gained momentum following the death of George Floyd in May, “Instagram became like a portal solely for information,” Randolph explains. “As a Black woman, it was about finding the balance between not seeming like I was being lazy, but also recognising that I deserve a reprieve.”
As a plus-size model, Randolph feels an unspoken responsibility placed on her to be vocal on social media, due to the lack of diversity in the creative sphere. “I feel some of that anxiety [day-to-day] but less so about being a Black woman and more so about being a plus-size Black woman. I recognise and appreciate that my presence in the industry is part of a change, but I also want women like me normalised without it being a discussion.”
“I’ve reached a point where social media and work is intertwined,” she continues. “I have to help build clientele so I’ll be in bed at 10pm and often checking if anyone has posted anything. It’s hard for me to imagine how to change [my mindset] because there are so many people with multi-hyphenate careers, so much of your sense of security is your output. If you are reducing or altering that, it takes that away.”
Self-examination is key to a healthier mindset
Multiple pressures placed upon women in society today can sometimes bring up feelings of inadequacy about our professional endeavours. Pushing full-steam ahead and multitasking is a trope lumped on to us, Dr Remes explains. “Now you’ve got women having multiple goals, holding down a job, having kids and responsibilities. We don’t have that limit, so where do you stop? It’s like this never-ending race.”
So, what is the best way to deal with this pressure and embark on a healthier journey with social media? Introspection, Dr Remes continues: “Know yourself and what makes you happy because it’s one thing to accumulate a lot of wealth and what society tells you that you should have, versus what you want.”
She concludes that you should stick to what suits your needs by gradually crossing things off your day-to-day list, if they no longer serve a purpose. “If it is making you happier and feel that you are a little bit more whole in life, then prioritise those things,” she advises. “Let’s say you want to have a YouTube channel, even if people are making a lot of money from that and it looks great, if—for you—it’s making you more tired and affecting your mental health, then cross that out and focus on the things you enjoy. Everything else is secondary.”
Could the future potentially include a more vulnerable and pressure-free cyber environment? “So much of our feelings surrounding work are negative,” Dr Remes concludes. “We often don’t feel good [about ourselves] because we look to our left and our right, and we see somebody else doing better. But the thing is, in life, there’s always going to be somebody else who does it better than you. Doing it at your own pace and not comparing yourself to other people is the key.”