Social media has been a blessing a curse for my mental illnesses. On one hand, I can communicate with a large number of people without burdening my social anxiety. I have a place to share my thoughts and opinions when I'm normally too shy to speak up in person. On the other, social media is full of edited perfection and highlight reels. Before social media, you wouldn't see pictures of your ex with another person so easily. You wouldn't know about the promotion someone who you haven't spoken to in 8 years received the moment it happened. Social media is great for spreading important and valuable information and for helping to keep people connected. I, myself, love that I can stay in touch with my family in Scotland more easily. However, as someone with a history of eating disorders and several other mental illnesses, social media has fired up my anxiety to the point that I had to take a step back to save my own life. There are plenty of other articles online about how to handle social media as someone with a mental illness. This isn't going to be a list of advice about unfollowing people and taking Sundays off from the internet. You've already heard it and know. That advice is excellent and I highly recommend following it as being more mindful of who I'm Facebook friends with has helped my anxiety in so many ways as had setting aside time to not be on social media. But instead of a generic article that doesn't get into the deeper and darker reasons why people feel the urge to unfollow someone or delete their social media altogether, I’m going to tell you the story of why I deleted my Instagram in hopes that someone can relate to what I experienced and no longer feel like they're crazy or that no one could ever understand.
Of all of the social media platforms, Instagram was the most toxic for me. I loved it when it first started and was infamous for my quirky Instagram name and hilariously awkward #ThrowbackThursdays. Then I got involved in an abusive relationship with a man my therapist would declare a narcissist and potentially a sociopath. People like my abuser enjoy playing mind games with their victims. They feel more powerful the more insecure and afraid you are. My abuser never got over losing power of his ex-girlfriend and remained obsessed with her during our relationship. He only dated me because I reminded him of her: dark hair with bangs, similar style, big eyes. People used to say I looked like her twin. This made it easy for him to find something to make me insecure and less powerful than him. He used to obsess over her Instagram posts and leave flirtatious comments. If I said anything about feeling uncomfortable, I was called crazy. He was always talking about how perfect she was as a way to make sure I knew I had to work extra hard to please him.
Every time I saw her post a selfie I would cry. I became paralyzed by my insecurity and forgot how to notice my own positive qualities. Every time I saw her face I would think “This is why he hits me. This is why he's always mad at me. I'm not pretty like her and it disappoints him. I can't be loved because I'm not her.” I had formed the belief that who I was wasn't good enough and that I had to be more like other people to be likable. Of course, this isn't Instagram’s fault or the fault of this girl but this was the beginning of me using Instagram as a tool for self-loathing. I couldn't use the app without making it toxic because of the thoughts that were put into my head.
Since I was in a very unhappy and abusive relationship, I was jealous of all of the perfect couples I saw on Instagram. While I was being pinned to the bed and choked on Valentine's Day, other girls were given flowers and took kissing selfies with their significant others. I wasn't allowed to spend time with my boyfriend on his birthday because he made me cancel our reservations so he could get drunk with his friends while other girls were their boyfriends’ #WomanCrushWednesdays for making their birthday so special. My boyfriend refused to post anything about me or hold my hand if he was worried anyone we knew could be around. He didn't want his ex to know he wasn't available anymore and he wanted other girls to think he was single so he could continue to get attention. I felt invisible and while I don't believe in parading your relationship around social media for several reasons, I felt horrible about being a complete secret and not being allowed to take a single photo together while every other couple I saw had all of these memories to share with the world. Instagram quickly went from being a fun app to a place where all of my insecurities were held. I was in a horrible place in my life and was left to compare myself with everyone who posted their best moments. I played a good game of posting funny captions and selfies that made me look confident. I didn't want anyone to know I was hurting and in danger. This only left me feeling worse as I felt guilty over allowing everyone in my life to believe I lived a life I only dreamed of.
My insecurities surrounding Instagram didn't get better after we broke up. If anything, I was more paranoid than ever before. Narcissistic abuse and PTSD often leaves you feeling paranoid and fearful. Narcissistic abusers talk badly about you to others when they no longer have you in their control. Someone would unfollow me and I would wonder if they had talked to him. I’d post something and not get many likes and wonder if everyone was mad at me. I didn't necessarily care about numbers but I was terrified of everyone hating me. On top of that, I felt like I had to be perfect for the next guy I dated or I would get hurt again. I've never truly felt like me whenever I've posted something on Instagram. I've always felt like I'm trying to promote an image or personality I think people would like so that they won't leave or hurt me.
Last year, I dated a guy who turned out to be psychologically, emotionally, and verbally abusive. Our fling didn't last long so the non-physical abuse wasn't severe but I had walked into the relationship with a history of trauma and the way he treated me cut open a lot of scars left by my abusive ex. After weeks of making me feel so special he changed overnight. One day I was amazing and the next I was worthless and unlovable. It happened as sudden as that. I still don't know why or what happened. I noticed after it ended that he seemed to have a thing for a girl I went to high school with. She has the Instagram aesthetic every girl dreams of. Always in a bikini, at a party, traveling, and surrounded by friends. She's gorgeous with a slim and fit body. Every guy seems to be crazy for her and every girl wants to be her. I took the latter to the extreme.
What happened with this guy reminded me so much of my abuse that I felt like I was living in the past. Just as what happened before, I was experiencing anxiety attacks every time I saw a picture of this girl on Instagram. I’d compare myself to her and pick on everything I hated about my appearance. The thoughts of “he left you because you're not her” came back. I found myself changing so I could be more like her. I started wearing clothes I felt like she would wear, took more selfies, wore lower-cut shirts, tried to make my life look more exciting than it was. Part of me wanted to please the guy I had dated so he would apologize and tell me the mean things he said weren't true. Part of me was trying to find my self-worth by being more like the people I deemed more worthy of love.
It doesn't work that way, of course. In the process of trying to be someone else I nearly killed myself as I fell back into an eating disorder. I felt so guilty over the thought of just unfollowing her. This girl had been nothing but nice to me and would be heartbroken if she knew what was going on. It wasn't her fault and it wasn't Instagram’s fault. If it wasn't her, it would have been another girl. There would always be someone else to compare myself to and another relationship to be jealous of. The problem was what was done to my brain when a couple of men manipulated me and how I allowed myself to think about myself. I've been in therapy to work on retraining how my brain works and reframe my thoughts. How I was utilizing Instagram was undoing all of that work and slowing down my progress. I knew I had to deactivate it because scrolling through some filtered pictures isn't worth risking my life.
People tend to act shocked when I say I'm not on Instagram. Being on social media can feel like an obligation in this world where no one will text you about their engagement because they assume you'll see it on Instagram. But I'm not required to be on any social media that negatively affects my health. Maybe one day I'll come back with a better perspective and more confidence to unfollow anything I find toxic and not be phased by numbers. It's also possible that I'll progress in therapy and will find that being back on Instagram brings me back down. Reminding myself that other people have struggles too and other advice people give about dealing with social media may not be enough for me. Instagram may be something I have to say goodbye to if it doesn't work for my mental and physical health and that's okay.