I know that social media is a mental health minefield. I was the editor-in-chief of a national wellness magazine. I’ve read the studies. I’ve scientifically debunked the idea that the perfect photo is proof of a perfect life—or even a perfect moment.
Yet, I still fall into the less-than trap myself.
But it’s not just chic #OOTD posts, gorgeous living rooms, and gluten-free kid lunches portioned just-so in adorable containers that make me feel worse by comparison. What I’ve noticed lately is far more unexpected: Wellness Instagram is making me feel less well.
(If you’re wondering, what is “wellness Instagram,” it’s my own little social microcosm. Having worked in wellness media for six years, my feed is curated around exercise companies and lifestyle brands, fitfluencers and self-love gurus, all promising better health, more happiness. Which means when I open Instagram, I see a lot of smoothie bowls, swipe-through workouts, meditation, and abs—and gobs and gobs of inspo-quote memes.)
Let’s back up: I recently lost my job (my company was acquired and a massive restructuring ensued), and it was crushing in many ways, not just because I loved my work, but because it brought up so many complicated feelings (self-doubt, self-blame, questions about identity) and fears (financial, social, professional). They’re not all rational, but they’re typical: A 2013 Gallup poll found that the depression rate in unemployed Americans is more than double the rate in people with full-time jobs.
My own bout of situational depression put a gray-colored lens over my sunny wellness feed, one that’s remained even as I’ve emerged from the shock and sadness. As I scroll past post after “motivational” post, I find myself talking back to the screen. But what I say rarely mimics the “thanks for the reminder” or “I needed that today” responses in the comments section.
What I find myself saying back to my feed is: Shut up.
No, I’m not a sparkly star today, thank you very much, I’m feeling rather dull. All the “crushing” of goals and “owning” of confidence and “you can do anything”-ness feels hollow. Pandering. Particularly when you don’t feel like you could crush a flea.
My “hair looks great today,” does it? Did Zeus descend from Mount Olympus with a giant can of Oribe Gold Lust Dry Shampoo to spritz over 23,000 people’s collective hair? These generic pronouncements are hardly 40-shades-of-Fenty nuanced. They’re black and white, and no one’s life—or emotional state—is like that.
I’m not just imagining this saturation of cliché. Jean Twenge, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at San Diego State University whose studies on mental health, social media, and generational differences have appeared in more than 100 scientific journals. While researching one of her books, Twenge found that “pop culture had this very clichéd language of ‘you deserve the best’ and ‘everything will always work out.’ Very pie-in-the-sky, high-expectations stuff. If you take a step back and analyze it as a cultural observer, you realize pretty quickly how strange it is.”
I understand the motive, of course. When an Instagram post proclaims “You are exactly where you need to be,” it was likely written as a mini pep talk. But for those who aren’t in love with their current situation—like those who are feeling particularly vulnerable from a significant life change—it reads almost cruel. Why would I “need to be” out of a job? Why would you “need to be” going through a romantic crisis? Why would someone “need to be” dealing with fertility problems?
Carmen Papaluca, a Ph.D. candidate in the School of Health Sciences at the University of Notre Dame Australia who is studying Instagram use, calls this it’s-all-good spin “positivity bias.” As she explains, “positive emotions are preferred on social media. Even ‘negative’ posts are often reframed in positive ways—e.g., posts often appear to frame challenges with optimism.”
So what’s so bad about blind optimism?
Google “the problem with positive thinking” and over 432 million links will explain it. The concept that you can happy-think-your-way out of feeling like poop has been debunked a zillion times, but it seems to have reanimated on social like a Walking Dead zombie.
Imagine a personal interaction where a friend said, “’Oh what the hell, Amy, buck up, cheer up, just think of rainbows and puppies and all will be well,’” says Margaret E. Duffy, Ph.D., executive director of the Novak Leadership Institute at the University of Missouri School of Journalism who has studied Facebook use and depression. “That isn’t helpful. It’s dismissive of your feelings.”
Beyond just being unhelpful, it can actually be harmful. “When positive thinking is not grounded in something real, it’s a bubble that will burst when it strikes against lived experience, leading to feelings of disappointment and frustration,” says Valentine Raiteri, M.D., clinical instructor in psychiatry at New York Presbyterian Hospital-Weill Cornell Medical College. “You risk feeling helpless because you thought you were doing something just by thinking—as opposed to taking action—and now you feel discouraged to try something else because your efforts didn’t work. Your negative distortions about yourself and the world are amplified by a sense of failure.”
And what multiplies that feeling of failure even further? Inspo-quotes with themes of “choice” and “control.”
As in, “Stop saying saying I can’t. You can. You just choose not to,” which I spotted on one feed. Or: “You control how you feel,” posted on another. The underlying message is that your current situation is something you can alter simply with the power of thought. If only it were that simple! But it’s a fundamentally flawed concept, one with an undertone of shame. For starters, if you’re feeling the way you’re feeling because of a mental health issue, it’s certainly not a choice; there’s brain physiology at play. Then there’s the reality of privilege. Not everyone has the same access or resources required to change their situation, no matter how motivated they are.
The proliferation of all this self-focused encouragement has its roots in 20th and 21st century prosperity—economically, medically, and technologically. A hundred years ago, nobody thought they controlled their destiny. Then, “disease and death were much more common and much more uncontrollable,” says Twenge, author of iGen: Why Today's Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood. “Their kids could get sick and die at any moment. That’s just not as true or as common now.”
More jurisdiction over finances and health gave rise to a general cultural shift toward individualism. “You can look at this in Google’s database and see so much more emphasis on the self and identity and uniqueness and encouragement and high expectations,” says Twenge.
Better medicines and technological advances are an obvious boon to our well-being—as is a more individualistic approach to the world in the sense that, for example, we now typically have more control over our careers, our relationships, and how we spend our time. But the focus on self has created this myth that “we have control over every minute of our lives,” says Twenge. “Not acknowledging that is actually dangerous in many ways.” As beneficial as it is to focus on the parts of your situation that you can control, it’s just as important to acknowledge and accept the things you can’t. “This perception that everything’s up to us means that if something bad happens, it’s all your fault.”
I’m not suggesting we ban all social media joy for total doom-and-gloom. That would be a disaster.
What I am proposing is to remember that the people who benefit most from wellness advocacy are the ones who aren’t in a great place. To a friend going through a tough time, would you simply say, “The key to feeling good is to decide to stop feeling bad,” as one account told its audience of millions? Or, as another post suggested, “Not to spoil the ending for you, but everything is going to be okay. So stop worrying!”? I wouldn’t—because it’s trite…not to mention unhelpful.
How does this translate when you have thousands or millions of followers—many of whom you know nothing about? For me, all it takes to turn a stereotypical “you are worth more” into something meaningful is context.
The posts that do make me feel understood and heard and a little bit better almost always include an anecdote or personal story about overcoming a struggle. They’re thoughtful and genuine. As Duffy explains it, “having the knowledge that others have felt and experienced what you have felt” but found a way through is powerful.
To wit, a 2017 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that accepting emotions—rather than judging yourself for them—helps promote psychological health. "Change cannot happen without self-knowledge," says Raiteri. "Addressing negative feelings is an effective start to overcoming them.”
Trainer and health coach Massy Arias (@massy.arias) is one of the best accounts on my feed when it comes to being real. By many outward standards, she’s a huge success, with 2.5 million followers, a booming fitness brand, a new CoverGirl contract, and an adorable daughter. But she regularly talks about her own obstacles and mental health challenges. She’s honest, not glib, and when she offers a “you can crush it,” she grounds it in a personal story and concrete steps to moving past discouragement. And if you simply can’t do without a daily inspo-quote dose, check out @thegoodquote. Slightly longer than a sound bite, their posts have just enough nuance, real emotion, and truth about life’s disappointments to make you feel all the feels—all except that “shut up” reaction I often get.
So! If you, too, are feeling fatigued with the very posts that aim to make you feel energized, know that it’s not you. It’s them. Which brings me to my final point—appropriately, this true cliché: Step away from social media whenever you can. Take a walk. Listen to a podcast. Call a friend. Because a screen is never a substitute for human-to-human interaction, particularly when a catchphrase won’t cut it.
Amy Keller Laird is an award-winning journalist and SELF’s wellness correspondent. She was previously the Editor-in-Chief of Women's Health and the Beauty Director of Allure, and has appeared on The Doctors, Today, and Good Morning America as a health, wellness, and beauty expert. Follow her on Instagram at @aklaird and on Twitter at @amykellerlaird.