A Den of Comparison

People ask me a lot why I'm not on Facebook or Twitter.

The simple answer is that I can't keep up with it. Between my email Inbox and this blog I'm at my limit. I don't have room in my life to add Facebook and Twitter interactions.

This, I'm told, really inhibits my ability to build a readership for this blog. I'm unable to buzz my blog on Facebook and Twitter. But I really don't care.

And there are moments when I think I reap a lot of other spiritual, psychological and social benefits for not being on Facebook. Last spring I did a series--"The Angel of the iPhone" (see the sidebar)--trying to think about the good and the bad of Web 2.0 connectivity. The series was prompted by the spate of stories and examples of people giving up Facebook for Lent. Why, I thought, was Facebook a target for Lent? Was Facebook a "guilty pleasure"? A form of self-indulgence? A spiritual distraction? Here at the blog I asked you, if you had given up Facebook for Lent or gone on a Facebook fast, what motivated you to do so. Here were some of your answers:

I felt guilty about all the times I disappeared from reality to converse with virtual friends.

...it consumed so much of my time...

It's possible that I have an actual psychological addiction to Facebook...The sort of thinking that leads me to perpetual page refreshing seems eerily akin to the behaviour of rats who want another serotonin shot and keep pumping that pedal...

So much of what I posted on Facebook was worded in order to see how many people would ‘like’ my comments. It’s just another way in which I am programmed to worry about what other people think and addicted to their praise.

I felt that God was asking me to give it up.

...postings would leave me angry. That made it impossible to simply log on for fun. The anger, I soon found, was not good for my soul.

I gave up facebook because I felt that it was distracting me from God's primary callings on my life, and I realized that I was not being a good steward of my time.

My reason [for giving up Facebook] was to not get "sucked in" during work or free time, lost in the news feed of others.

[Facebook] had become part of my habit to a degree I was uncomfortable with. Whenever I was bored I'd just click the icon on my bookmark bar or the app on my phone for a minute of mindless scrolling and reading about things that (for the most part) don't really matter.

It's a tool with the potential to suck out your soul...

I gave up having online debates/discussions/arguments about politics and religion.

I feel like Facebook was allowing me to be "friends" without being actually friendly, a key temptation for an introvert such as myself. Second, I found myself comparing my life to the exciting lives posted by others, and coming up lacking (in my mind)...

I would say that my reasons [for fasting from Facebook] had to do with sensitivity vs. stimulation. Our culture is addicted to stimulation (Kurt Cobaine- "here we are now, entertain me"). However, the more stimulated one gets, on movies, gadgets, music, etc. the less sensitive they become.

For me, this was about my growing insecurity that was in a lot of ways fueled by the time I spent on Facebook.

Facebook is something of a monster, chewing up increasing amounts of time as the number of friends grows larger and larger and the need to post every thought, photo and comment feels greater and greater.
I was recently reminded of the comment above--"I found myself comparing my life to the exciting lives posted by others, and coming up lacking"--reading Daniel Gulati's article Facebook Is Making Us Miserable at the Harvard Business Review blog. Daniel writes about discoveries he made in researching a recent book about how Facebook is affecting the lives of young professionals:
[T]his new world of ubiquitous connections has a dark side. In my last post, I noted that Facebook and social media are major contributors to career anxiety. After seeing some of the comments and reactions to the post, it's clear that Facebook in particular takes it a step further: It's actually making us miserable.

Facebook's explosive rate of growth and recent product releases, such as the prominent Newsticker, Top Stories on the newsfeed, and larger photos have all been focused on one goal: encouraging more sharing. As it turns out, it's precisely this hyper-sharing that is threatening our sense of happiness.

In writing Passion & Purpose, I monitored and observed how Facebook was impacting the lives of hundreds of young businesspeople. As I went about my research, it became clear that behind all the liking, commenting, sharing, and posting, there were strong hints of jealousy, anxiety, and, in one case, depression.
Where is this jealousy, anxiety and depression coming from? Number one among Gulati's list of answers is this:
[Facebook is] creating a den of comparison. Since our Facebook profiles are self-curated, users have a strong bias toward sharing positive milestones and avoid mentioning the more humdrum, negative parts of their lives. Accomplishments like, "Hey, I just got promoted!" or "Take a look at my new sports car," trump sharing the intricacies of our daily commute or a life-shattering divorce. This creates an online culture of competition and comparison...

Comparing ourselves to others is a key driver of unhappiness. Tom DeLong, author of Flying Without a Net, even describes a "Comparing Trap." He writes, "No matter how successful we are and how many goals we achieve, this trap causes us to recalibrate our accomplishments and reset the bar for how we define success."And as we judge the entirety of our own lives against the top 1% of our friends' lives, we're setting impossible standards for ourselves, making us more miserable than ever.

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41 thoughts on “A Den of Comparison”

  1. Why do you need a Facebook presence when the rest of us are probably posting articles on there? :-)

    Anyway, I think some of the dynamics you mention above are distilled versions of what we have known already about watching soap operas, talk shows and "reality shows". The big shift here is that many of the people in the "play" now, we know personally. There is no distance perceived between the fantasy and reality. 

    As people who post (FB, blogs or otherwise), there is a fine line between "curating" only positive information and "oversharing" negative information. Both writers and readers need to be discerning. Personally, I have worked hard on this aspect as I do openly share about challenges I am facing on my blog (most recently in a series about the parable of "The Prodigal Son").

  2. Perhaps we could organise a Christmas Round Robin burning for the same reasons...

    (or, less excitingly, we could just pray for our friends who send them).

  3. Doesn't church also create a "den of comparison"? That's been my experience anyway. People who "unfriend" you do it in person. Facebook has been much more positive.

  4. The great monastics of Egypt were like beacon in the desert. A magnet for the common folk who wondered at their wisdom even if they could not understand all of it.  ET is likewise, a beacon for me and other lurkers so you thank you for beaconing for us.

  5. Well, this is a timely post for me.  A month or so ago, I made a decision to de-activate my Facebook account.  Since then, I have stopped posting, but have been conflicted about pulling the plug.  My teenage daughter is on Facebook; is it wise for me to leave the scene altogether?  I reconnected with my half-sister through Facebook a year ago this Thanksgiving, after 14 years of estrangement.  We're still rebuilding that relationship, and Facebook is one easy means of staying in touch.  That is probably "TMI" (and you didn't really need to know all that about me!)

    Originally, I got on Facebook to scope out how it worked for my teenage daughter to come online.  Was it safe or good for her?  I had to see for myself.  At that same time, I was very conflicted about a lot of issues in conservative evangelical Christianity (religious doctrine, politics, personally disappointing experiences).  I was very open about my thoughts and life experiences, and feeling very feisty about the whole situation.  Lots of religious and political "discussions" in the comment section.  As Roger Olsen has said, it all comes down to "blik."  I'm over it; haven't won anything, except to be honest with myself and others.  Painfully so.

    I commend you, Richard (Dr. Beck, as I think of you), for not getting sucked into Facebook or Twitter.  Your blog is much more meaningful.  This blog and Jesus Creed are about the only blog sites that I read on a daily basis, and have ever commented on.  As much as anyone can find meaningful interaction on the Internet, I think you have facilitated that here.   Thank you.  Merry Christmas!

  6. Patricia, I am empathizing with you.  The IRL "de-friending" is very painful.  I am grateful for your presence and insightful comments here at this blog.

  7. Patricia, Your comment affected me- a lot. Thanks for your insight. I think being 'unfriended' in person is truly one of the most hurtful things that has ever happened to me. Being unfriended on facebook didn't affect me quite as much because I saw my Facebook relationships as a bit superficial. Church relationships are supposed to be deeper and more meaningful- supposed to be. Maybe Facebook is more positive because the relationships found there are less meaningful in that they aren't as deep and personal??

    That being said, I've been Facebook free for over a year now. I could have written almost every single comment from Dr. Beck's first Facebook post. Facebook, for me, was a distraction and fed on every insecurity I'd ever had. Although 'face to face' relationships are certainly more risky for me I'm trying really hard to cultivate meaningful, lasting ones. I'm actually finding there are people who are willing to look past my silliness and immaturity (and I truly have some quirks) and love me anyways.

  8. There are many places we can compare ourselves. We can compare ourselves to strangers at the mall, or to others at church... on more than one occassionally I have succumbed to covetousness on account of others in the church who have more than I do... The core character issues that result in such comparison and covetousness don't go away because you stop using facebook, although the temptation may lessen which provides a much-needed peace for those so challenged... we are neither better Christians if we use Facebook nor worse Christians if we don't. Be thankful if your online life is full enough that you don't need to fill it with Facebook. On the other hand, even if you don't use Facebook, don't be so sure that other online activites aren't creating spiritual challenges for you in other ways... it is a Satanic deception to focus on what it is that we do or don't do rather than on the actual state of our hearts.

  9. I gave up facebook for Lent because it really had taken over my time.Facebook was what I did and social network games was how I spent my free time; all my time. When I came back it took awhile but I found myself falling into the same game playing trap and started removing them from my life. I try now to live through my life and not through my screen. 

  10. I think that's the point, and it goes to what Patricia said here on this thread. Facebook isn't intrinsically bad. It's just a location, among many locations, that can exacerbate certain unhealthy tendencies.  For example, while not on Facebook I find myself at times struggling with comparisons in the blogging world.

  11. Staying in touch is THE great blessing of Facebook and social networking. Lot's of people I know have found Facebook to be a place of amazing grace and support.

  12. Wonderful point! Some of our friends send really funny and warm letters, including the good and the bad. But some are just, well, all about image management. I recall a letter from a cousin telling us about the square footage of their new house. And I thought, "Why are you telling me this? Who the hell cares?"

  13. I do want to thank all of you who post/tweet anything here on Facebook or Twitter. I think that might be the only way new readers would get here. So thanks!

  14. This post does a great job of highlighting how any of us can let something take up too much space in our lives that should be spent in a different way.  Having small kids and currently only one car that my husband and I share for commuting to our jobs on opposite shifts, I've actually found Facebook to be a great way for me to connect with my friends and keep up with them when getting together in person just isn't an option.  It has been a blessing to me for the most part, although from time-to-time I have seen some of the issues you've mentioned in your post.   
    I think this is a fitting reminder for us to examine whatever it may be in our lives that we use to compare ourselves to others or to spend time feeling dissatisfied, and think about replacing it with things that help us to become better people or focus on ways we can make positive improvements to our own lives and the lives of others.  Thank you for sharing!

  15. And now for something completely unrelated, (putting it here is easier than looking up your email),
    could I interest you in doing a blog series on Nietzsche's "The Antichrist"? I am wrestling with it a bit and think you would have some interesting reflections on it!

  16. Richard, thank you so much for this. I've not been on Facebook for about two years now, and I just love it. The weight off my shoudlers from not having to compare myself to the perceived wonderful lives of just about everyone I've ever come into contact with is such a blessing. Added to that, I realized that Facebook was, for me, another way for me to present a carefully crafted masquerade to the world. A lie. A con. The guy that my Facebook page was about? Well, he didn't *really* exist, did he? I'd post only the photos of myself that I liked, share only the news I wanted people to know, etc. That wasn't really my life, it was a lie. And for me, it was something I didn't have the strength to fight. So I axed the whole thing, and thank God I did, I say.

  17. BTW, I wonder if you've come across this diagram, which appears to sum up much of your theology and methodology in a single graphic?



  18. So true.  Thus my dilemma.  I think in taking a step back from being active on Facebook, it is giving me a time to contemplate what I want Facebook to be in my life.  It certainly is not the essence of "me" -- as another said, there is a superficial aspect to the socializing that doesn't really satisfy the need for meaningful relationship.  Facebook can be one part of connecting, but better not be the whole of social life.  I thank God for the technology of Facebook that enabled me to search and find my sister.  That was as practical a miracle as I've ever experienced!

  19. As you probably have already realized, those who "unfriended" you were never your true friends in the first place. So while that realization may have been initially painful, it did serve to separate you from those who would only drag you down to their level. And it is so much better to be loving all of your fellow man than in judging and condemning them as those in the "den of comparison" so often do.

  20. I can't help but think the bias toward sharing positive information on Facebook comes not only from comparing ourselves to others, but (maybe secondarily?) from a more generalized feeling of being monitored. Privacy on Facebook is an oxymoron; regardless of anyone's opinion about this fact, most people seem to know that fact itself. Conventional wisdom seems to indicate it's smart to think of Facebook in its entirety as a public space where anything you "say" not only may be "overheard" at the time you say it, but will be archived forever even if you try to delete it.I can see how people wouldn't want to reveal much of anything that's NOT brag-worthy, and not just because they worry how they measure up to their friends. It sounds like an unhealthy climate all around. 

  21. I have a friend who deleted his facebook account recently, because he figured out that he was wasting 2 weeks per year on it!

  22. I appreciate that in the comments, Dr. Beck, you mentioned that you struggle with comparisons in the blogging world. Facebook, I think, is a more intense and compressed version of blogging.  With blogs, although there can be more room for showing more than just the best parts of yourself, I think it becomes more about finding a certain voice that is partly but not wholly you.  When it comes to the issue of comparison, as a blogger and a mother of young children, "Mommy" blogs can be my worst enemy.  Talk about dens of comparison and judgement...Once I realized that I was comparing my mothering skills to others and seeming to fail miserably, I tried to post less reports of my children's accomplishments...but it is certainly a temptation and can be a bit of a demon, this comparing.

  23. The similarities are striking.

    Does it follow that if Satan took up a responsible job, he'd become Santa?  A merely coincidental anagram...?  I don't think so!! 

  24. Here's a confession: I've never read Nietzsche. I've tried multiple times but never could get much into any of his books. I keep trying, annually. When I get something of his under my belt I'll be sure to share my thoughts.

  25. Dr. Beck
    I've been wanting to ask you this for awhile and here might be an opportunity or excuse.  I continue to be blown away by the high level / quality of material you maintain here on ET.  The details and research required to inform yourself of the topic, not to mention the thought you put in to articulate your presentations.  You post almost daily - and consisitently maintain this high level of presentation ... and it continues to be fresh and intriguing.  QUESTION - how do you cope with the pressures of ... "keeping this blog thing up"?   I've followed this blog for 4-5 years and readers have grown (DESERVEDLY SO) - do you battle with a self-imposed pressure concerning this (I hope not but surely understand that might be the case).

    Gary Y 

  26. There are some pressures. I do feel if I don't post at least four times as week that I'd be letting people down. I like to make people happy, so that plays into it.

    But it's not too burdensome. Mainly because I enjoy it a great deal and ya'll are so nice and appreciative. I get lots of private emails (and even gifts once in awhile) from people expressing gratitude for things I've written. That makes me feel that it is all very much worth it. Plus, I learn a great deal from readers. 

    But I think the main thing that helps me out is that blogging is the perfect platform for how my mind works, my eclectic interests and where I am in my career. I'll never be a huge producer of books (but my second one is coming out next month). I don't have the patience for it. I'd much rather do the long series here on the blog. More, a lot of my reflections on faith and psychology don't really fit with the scholarly journals out there. And I've also lost a great deal of patience with the idiocy and narcissism of a lot of what passes for peer review. The point being, I've come to think of this blog (and I might be unique in the blogosphere in this regard) as my main outlet for scholarly writing. While everyone else is working on books or journal articles I'm putting my energies into writing here. Which means readers getting my best stuff. I'm not saving it, like many other academic bloggers, for the journals and publishers.

  27. Thought provoking. From where I sit Facebook has been an essentially positive addition to my world. I've reconnected with people and found a place to share my blogging. That being said, very early on I realized the likelihood that people would share the good and omit the difficult. I also accepting, that just as in face to face communications, people lie. Balance in all things has been my motto, and will continue to be. I would never have found this blog if not for FB, though.

  28. Hi Erin,  I don't think my FB friends are less meaningful to me (I have only a few friends on FB). All but one are people I know, used to live by, are my children, or been friends with for a long time. Only one I haven't met in person, but I met her through a support group for adult children of toxic parents, and she used to live here in Abilene. The two communities I'm in on FB have been supportive, understanding and helpful, whereas I haven't found that in any groups in churches.  

  29. You're right, Jim, and when you've invested years in a friendship only to be discarded like a used tissue because you're not "convenient" or "supporting my organization or thing"  or saying just what they want to hear anymore ... well, friendship ain't what it used to be. Or what I thought it was.

  30. Speaking for just myself, I keep my FB friend list small so that it can stay a positive uplifting experience. All the people on my friends list are people I really know, most are relatives. We are a very positive supportive group we help each other with problems,and cheer each other on when good happens!! A lot of silliness goes on too. My experience with FaceBook has been Great!!  I love Your Blog it comes to my Kindle, and sadly sometimes I find what you say in your blog more meaningful than my Pastors sermons.

  31. Facebook is a mirror, masquerading as a window. In other words, we tell ourselves FB
    connects us when in reality, we are staring at our selves. We project an online image to impress others,
    spending inordinate amounts of time propping the image up. It re assures us that we are "fine", when actually
    it is just the newest response we have developed to feed our egos.

  32. Perhaps what it boils down to is some of us are able to use Facebook in a healthy way and others of us are not. It seems that you have a great balance, Patricia. I, on the other hand, did not. I sincerely apologize that I assumed everyone was like me. One can not have deep, meaningful relationships with hundreds of people, like I tried to. Mostly, I ended up comparing myself with every single one- were they more spiritual? Were they more well liked? Were they cuter? Were they a better mother? Invited to more parties? Now, maybe, you can see how truly ridiculous I can be. And, also, why it was imperative I get off of Facebook. And, maybe, why I struggle to have meaningful relationships.

  33. Patricia already seems to have become the focus for the healthy/unhealthy use observations, but I'll point out that, in my limited experience, different social groups use Facebook differently. People over 35 who I have on Facebook generally use it in the way you've described: they usually post positive things, and even negative things tend to get a positive spin on it. My generation (under 25) tends to use it much differently: people post both negative and positive things, usually in equal amounts. There's a sense of commiseration, particularly when we're marking and writing final papers (we're TAs). Other people my age (I'm generally like this) post links to interesting websites or shout-outs for help on particular issues more than personal information; we don't want to overshare.

    However, there's only so far that this can go; if you're single, you still see that others aren't; if you don't consider yourself attractive, you still see photos of people who are; if you don't have an option in the "relationship" category that describes yours, you see lots of people who do have such an option. (That goes for real life too, though.) And this is far from the only way that Facebook is unhealthy. The rat quotation above is mine, and while that no longer describes me, it once did. The desire for attention is as problematic, I think, as the tendency to compare.

  34. It's interesting. Some people seem to need small groups of very supportive friends. Other poeple seem to need many friends who can be interested in them for short periods of time. Most people seem to fall somewhere between the two. Trying to use Facebook in a way that you are not (usually that would be an introvert trying to use it like an extrovert) will be psychologically damaging, I'm sure.

  35. Hi Erin, I was only speaking from my own experience. I totally agree with you that we assume church friends are supposed to be more deep and personal. Kinda the way we assume family relationships are supposed to be supportive and positive. It just doesn't always work out. We each deal with the fallout in our own ways.

  36. Goodonya. I'm guessing that by staying away from the terrible two, you probably help yourself maintain some disconnect from your online self. Besides, my guess is you're getting plenty of traffic as it is... did you know that Slacktivist quotes you regularly now? And that guy's got, like, half the internet hanging out at his blog.

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