Book Excerpt: Things I Got Wrong So You Don't Have To
November 26, 2022
Credit: This excerpt is taken from pages 117-121 of Pooky Knightsmith’s book Things I Got Wrong So You Don’t Have To, published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers. Discover more about the book and get 15% off with the code MINDSUM15 here.
Don’t compare your bloopers to other people’s highlights
When we compare ourselves, warts and all, to other people’s airbrushed highlights, it can really knock our self-esteem.
What I got wrong in the past
My first introduction to not taking everything we see at face value came when working with the Dove Self-Esteem project several years ago, where we used a series of videos to teach children about how those perfect images we see on billboards and in magazines are actually created. A really brilliant video showed the whole process from start to finish, including everything from makeup to clever lighting and photography to image selection and online manipulation of skin and features. The thing that always surprised me the most was that the model’s neck was lengthened during the photo-editing process. The model was unrecognisable from start to finish; she probably wished that she looked like the person on the billboards, and yet…it was her.
Back then, the main issue we had to contend with was people comparing themselves to unrealistic images portrayed by the media. Now it’s all around us every day, with airbrushing and filters the norm rather than the domain of professional photographers. Social media is an amazing tool for connection and enabling people to find their tribe, but it also allows us to follow the lives of friends and other people we like or admire and many of us find ourselves constantly comparing ourselves to them.
We don’t just compare how we look or what we wear, but how we conduct our daily lives, what our homes look like, how we study or parent, and on it goes. I taught about this, I’d written lesson plans on it and developed training for other trainers, but it’s something that I continued to struggle with myself. I knew that the images were airbrushed and the stories were curated and yet I’d find myself comparing my every day to other people’s special day and feeling as if somehow I wasn’t quite worthy of my place in society.
The lesson and the teacher
Ironically, I’ve learned this lesson from an Instagram influencer. I know, I know. Annie, @theLAminimalist, is a project manager in Los Angeles who posts about ‘that not-stuff life’ and her journey from huge consumer debt and a very materialistic lifestyle to a minimalist, debt-free life. Annie’s posts are often raw and real and her stories on Instagram are very short but pack a mean punch. I started following her because I’d become interested in consuming less and owning less, but I continued following her for her thoughts on life and how to live well in a broader sense.
Occasionally, Annie will address the fact that other people are trying to be ‘like her’ and she tells them that they need to just be the best version of themselves that they can be. She never claims to be a perfect minimalist, nor a perfect anything for that matter, but just someone who is trying to live simply, spend more time doing the stuff she loves and build deeper connections with the people in her life.
The lessons I’ve taken away from Annie have taught me that I’d previously been taking the wrong approach when it came to compare and despair. I’d always thought that what I needed to be doing was simply to switch off those channels, or to try and internalise the idea that the images and stories I was seeing were being shown through a certain filter and should not be compared to my raw shots. What I learned from Annie, and the thing that’s made the biggest difference to me, is that it’s not about improving the way in which I compare myself, but about becoming more deeply comfortable in myself. When I’m confident that the life I am living, whether or not I choose to share it online, is authentic and brings me joy and challenge and connection and any of the other things I might hope for, then the lives of others will be something I can enjoy and celebrate rather than a stick with which to beat myself.
What I do now
I’m not at that point of perfect inner contentment and contemplation yet and I currently still find it very helpful to limit my access to social media sites such as Facebook and Instagram. In particular, these two sites tend to make me feel as if I’m a less good parent than I should be and I find that the heavy use of images and filters can warp my sense of reality and create unrealistic ideals that I still find myself attempting to aspire to. So I limit my access to social media. But I’m doing some deeper work too. The pandemic has been a great time of reflection for me and my family and we’re making some pretty fundamental changes to our day-to-day life. Are they changes that would look eye-catching on social media? Probably not. But are they changes that will lead to a deeper sense of fulfilment and more joy every day? I very much hope so.
I’ll continue trying to work towards a simpler, more fulfilling way of life for myself and my family which I believe will be the very best protection from compare and despair and will mean we’re happy and healthy to boot. I’m also beginning to think about my own use of social media. I’ve become aware recently that other people sometimes compare their life to mine in just the way I’ve been guilty of comparing my life to others’. I find myself wondering if there is a more authentic way to use sites like Instagram. I’ve already made this effort on Twitter and am careful to be open and honest about the harder days as well as the better ones. But other social networks are more difficult, especially when they’re image based, because just how often do we take a photograph of the mundanity of everyday life or a challenge that we’re struggling with? And how compelled do we feel to tell those stories?
This is something I need to do more thinking on, and as my girls reach an age where they will soon begin to curate their lives online, I look forward to exploring this with them and their friends.
Things you could try
Here are some things you could try if you’d like to apply this lesson to your own life:
1. Look at your own social media stream – notice what you’ve chosen to share and imagine how someone who didn’t know you would interpret your life. Would it give them a realistic understanding of who you are and how your life is? If not, is that a problem? Maybe not, but just hold that thought when lusting after others’ lives. Make a start by noting down what you notice about your social media streams.
2. Wonder ‘Why are they telling this story?’ – when viewing the stories that other people share, if they leave you with a feeling of envy or emptiness or discontent, just take a moment to wonder what the story is that this person is trying to tell and why. Often, people work very hard to portray the life they’d like to live rather than the one they are actually living.
3. Limit the time you spend comparing and despairing – be aware of the time you spend on social media sites and consider how long and when you should be spending that time. For example, it can be helpful to avoid this behaviour just before bed as it can leave you with feelings of inadequacy swirling round and round in your head as you try to sleep. Make a start by listing any ‘rules’ you’d like to try and make around your social media usage.