Judging by social media, everyone in the world is spending their days exercising, doing house projects, and baking sourdough bread. And they’re doing it so much better than we ever could: Exercising with more creativity and commitment, transforming backyards into Edens, and making artisanal loaves that look like museum pieces. Meanwhile, I’m still in my PJs at noon, checking all this social media while working my way through a case of Ruffles potato chips and watching The Bachelor.
But let’s think about the purpose of all this inspirational social media. Is the purpose really to inspire? When people ranging from celebrities to your high school acquaintances post workouts and meals, are they trying to lead by example, helping you live your best life, or are they seeking recognition for the lives they WISH they were living? Because that’s what social media is: A snapshot. And anyone can look motivated, creative, and skilled for a snapshot.
But if this sounds deceitful, look closer. Chances are these same people spent the first half of their day in their PJs eating Ruffles while watching The Bachelor, and seeking recognition on social media is their way to make themselves feel better. We’re all struggling right now. We all need ways to stay positive. Even if posting aspirational activities to social media isn’t YOUR strategy to feel better, some people may need Instagram likes to stay afloat right now.
So the real question is, What are the authentic strategies that help you feel better?
The idea that behaviors tell us how we are feeling and can be used to help influence our emotions is the backbone of cognitive behavioral therapy. It’s a bit like the old saying “Fake it ’till you make it.” You’re not in a good mood yet, but instead of doing things that perpetuate being down, you can act as if you’re in a better headspace, and by doing so you can actually help yourself transition into this better headspace. In fact, for me, going directly from my “bad headspace activities” to my “good headspace activities” is too far to leap, and so I like to add a third category, namely activities that help me break free of my bad headspace on the way to my good headspace.
I’m a school psychologist and a parent, so I tend to think about ways to create a more beneficial emotional experience through the lens of kids. But I use the following exercise myself and hope that adults will find it useful too.
First, make a chart with three columns. In the first column, list the things you do when you’re feeling down. For me, these things include watching bad TV shows, stress eating, and avoiding responsibilities. Then in the second column, list the things you do when you’re feeling good, for example proactively tackling hard projects at work or sitting down with your kids for an art project. The third column is the hard part: List things that can make you feel good — think about these things like a bridge from the first to the second column, or like things you can do to break a spiral of less useful behaviors.
When I started making my list, I put activities like playing guitar, taking the dogs for a walk, and 5 minutes of stretching in the third column. Whatever these “bridge” activities are, they can’t be things that are imposed on you. Or, if you’re helping kids or other loved ones make this list, your child has to be part of picking these third-column activities. Even if these things seem silly or even counterproductive to you, authentic activities can cue the transition to a better headspace much more successfully that something that is chosen for them. Also note the activities in this third column aren’t in themselves “good headspace” activities, but they are small things you can do to move toward good headspace activities, or at least break free from the things you do when you’re feeling down.
Now that you’ve made this chart, try to catch yourself in that sweet spot before you are so down that you can’t motivate to do better. Once you’re into your third episode of The Bachelor, it’s really hard to motivate into that third column! I find it helpful to practice on my family: When you notice someone getting stuck in their bad headspace behaviors, help them pick something from the third column that can help them feel better. It takes significant mindfulness to notice the slide into bad headspace behaviors in yourself, but the earlier you notice this slide, the easier it is to pick something from your third column to correct your course.
Don’t hate the beautiful and motivated people of Instagram, who seem to find endless joy even in the worst of times. Maybe Instagram is their third column. Maybe they NEED their followers’ recognition and support. Your challenge is to find out what YOU need to help yourself feel better.
Dr. Pikiewicz earned her PhD in Clinical Psychology at Pacifica Graduate Institute in Carpinteria, CA. She completed pre-doctoral training at the Nan Tolbert Nurturing Center in Ojai, CA, and her post-doctoral internship at the Boulder Institute for Psychotherapy and Research. At both sites, Dr. Pikiewicz worked with a range of adult, adolescent and child clients in individual, couple, family and group settings. She also holds a B.S. in environmental science from Allegheny College and a teaching credential from Western Washington University.