What are you looking at? The consequences of socially-acceptable cyberstalking in the digital age.
Our psyches are like sponges, and not too long ago, choosing what we did or did not expose ourselves to was much easier. We had fewer choices, and we had much less access to the private (and suddenly very public) life of the person who bullied us in 5th grade or the guy/girl who broke our hearts about 7 times before we finally stopped barking up his or her tree. We could learn our lessons and humbly move on with little to no interaction left to be had with the people who taught us the hard stuff. As we evolved and changed, the cast of characters in our lives and the people we "knew things" about changed too. That was until we were all graced with the socially acceptable form of legal stalking that we politely refer to as "social media." I'm not saying I know too much about the people who left me out of middle school sleepovers (obviously I hold NO resentment or memory of these things...) But seriously, we all have our "list" of people that we KNOW we would't know anything about if it weren't for the insight that the internet so generously gives us. We can set boundaries, we can end relationships and start new ones, but in many cases we no longer have to truly live without anyone because we have full view of every instragam-able meal they've eaten, every pound they've lost and every promotion they've had since we broke up with them. And we don't resent these things at when we find out about them. Obviously.
When we have such easy access to people we really shouldn't know anything about, it's easy to be completely unaware of the havoc we wreak on our lives by comparing our inner world to their highlight reel. We walk gracefully (or not so gracefully) out of the path of others only to continue to keep up with them through highly edited snapshots that they hand-select to share with the entire world. We compare our insides to their outsides, or worse, we continue to re-live whatever trauma we experienced at their hands every time they update their status and we read it.
I had a falling out with a friend in college and I never fully admitted the gravity of the fall-out until very recently (at least six years later.) I was temporarily very close with someone who I shared a lot with (and who shared a lot with me) and she essentially went on to live a life very contrary to what I expected as someone who knew her pretty well. Perhaps fearing my judgement, she cut me off as a friend entirely, but added me on Facebook and followed me on Instagram as soon as she'd finally created accounts on both. I had way too big of a window into her life and as I perused her photos way too regularly, I found myself glamorizing her entire existence and putting my own life down in the gutter. I talked about her with friends all the time - I was fascinated by the life she'd chosen to live and was determined to better "understand it" even though everything I could see of it was heavily filtered and edited.
I grew tired of myself and my "fascination" with this friend and began to feel the way many people probably felt before stalking became the norm: like a total creeper. I couldn't get over how much I knew about my very-former friend's life and, being a pretty self-aware individual (though my cyber-stalking in this instance might not have revealed that...) I started checking in with myself every time I started weeding through her latest posts. Did I feel good when I was browsing her spotless profile? Did I like my hair better when I compared it to hers? Did I embrace my thighs every time I wondered if one of her legs could fit into the armhole of my jacket? No. No to all of the questions. But for some reason I was always coming back for more.
Listen, clearly I am not perfect, and I know that in this day and age, we all have people that draw in our fascination to the point of us knowing WAY more than we should about their lives. That said, it became clear to me that sometimes we need to make serious exceptions: we really can't just "keep up" with everyone because the internet allows us to. In the same way that we set boundaries in our personal lives, we have to take care of ourselves on the internet and social media too. With so much "easy access", these kinds of boundaries sometimes feel even harder than the in-person kind: in this case, it is up to us to decide what we're going to look and expose ourselves to on a day-to-day basis.
I wasn't the only one fanatically interested in my former friend's life. She'd gained a very significant following over the past year or so and I wondered about that, too. I compared my "number" to her "number" and didn't even realize I was doing it. Last week, a friend and I were discussing the issues that middle school and high school children are currently having with equating popularity to the number of followers they have. "Judging yourself based on how many people are following you on social media???" she questioned. "That's just not a very self-loving thing to do."
Think of your friends and the people you let into your psyche and inner circle. If you're anything like me, you've got a small handful of people that you tell your deepest darkest secrets (or "shame stories" as Brene Brown refers to them) and a few people who make you feel safe, loved and accepted. No one is perfect, but you've found friends who embrace your imperfections, and you're careful. You're careful not to just hang out with anyone and you'd rather spend Friday nights alone instead of with someone who makes you want to eat a bag (or two) of Oreos a la Stephen Colbert. But then comes the internet. You've opted for a solo evening indoors only to sit in front of your laptop with a glass of wine and get caught up on all your former high school BFFs that seem to have more money, better clothes and a better job than you do. You have two more glasses and wake up the next morning hungover from Cabernet and envy.
There's NO ONE who is immune to this. I know because I've asked everyone. Seriously. When I had my little internet obsession with my old college friend I was actually starting to freak myself out. Was it normal to know so much about this girl? Was I losing my mind? Was I losing my sanity over another individuals' Instagram feed? I couldn't keep my questions to myself, so I asked ALL of my friends. Everyone, even my friends who've spent hours on a meditation pillow and/or in group therapy, were following former friends and current enemies they couldn't keep their eyes off of. We all have that "person", and most of us have much more than one. I had more than one, for sure.
I'm trying to think of my time spent on the internet now as though I were my own child. If my child were bullied or had just gotten out of a relationship, would I insist that he or she regularly keep up with and compare herself or himself to those people whenever he/she had a free moment to spare? Would I just look on without intervening every time she got on the computer and wondered if she wasn't doing life right because she didn't have enough nice clothing or a nice enough lunch box? Would I let her continue to call herself unworthy by allowing her to judge her own worthiness against someones airbrushed outside appearance?
When it comes to the internet especially, we don't have guardians or rule-enforcers. We are our own parents, and we get to choose what we look at. When you look at it that way, the choice is much more obvious: look at what makes you feel good. The good stuff is the stuff that reminds you that you're good enough already.