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Recovery blog

Comparison and Disconnection

By: Emily DeMalto, MS, Clinical Program Manager at The Renfrew Center of Philadelphia - Spring Lane

Posted on March 22, 2021

3.22.21 blog header imageSocial Media.

Despite the interaction social media provides, for many it may contribute to disconnection, comparison and a struggle to feel "enough."

It's March 2020, and I'm sitting in my living room after work. I have just finished making dinner, and I'm hoping to unwind for the evening. Most of the country has just gone into lockdown for the first time due to the COVID-19 pandemic. I open my phone's app store and download TikTok; I had heard some of the residents talking about it at work. After some days of scrolling through content and videos, I left an encouraging comment on a person's post discussing their eating disorder recovery. Very quickly, videos started to appear on my "For You Page," the app's primary content page, with topics including diet, exercise, calorie counting, and workout routines. Influencers with toned bodies encouraged me to "fix my thighs" and "lose fat." Even more jarring were videos titled, "What I eat in a day to lose weight." Teens and young adults (mostly women) boasted total caloric intakes of 1200, or sometimes less.

I was floored. In a span of less than a month, and after interacting with two or three videos related to food/fitness, over half of the videos I saw were body- or food-related. You can visit creators' pages and see each of the videos they have submitted—some have hundreds of posts. They may range from innocuous to disordered, and there are only some restrictions on permitted content. Common themes of these troubling videos are a drive to change and a lack of contentment with oneself. Avoidance, distraction, newness—all of it a way to divert from distressing realities of a world in turmoil, upset routines and real connections disrupted.

Flash forward to the summertime. As an essential worker, I was still regularly out of the house.
However, following the workday, I would return home, and on the weekends, I do my best to
ensure I was doing my part for social distancing. Most days I checked off something on my "to do" list, but other days I was less productive.

I open my phone and switch from app to app, screen bright and alluring: Instagram, Facebook,
TikTok, and SnapChat. I see bread recipes, workouts to avoid the "Quarantine 15," models with
idealized and edited bodies and faces, cleaning hacks, ways to turn hobbies into "side hustles;" I am suddenly struck with guilt and shame. I have no "side hustle," I've not lost weight, my
house is not always neat, and I am currently eating frozen pizza rather than something made from scratch. I am stuck with a sense that I "haven't been productive with this time that we've had." I have failed and I experience an intense feeling that I am "less than" all these people I see on my screen. I dig into where this sense of guilt comes from.


I realize the guilt is emanating from comparison, a desire to measure up and an unrelenting
stream of information from my screens informing me that others (everyone, apparently) were
doing what I was not, achieving what I was not and thriving in the pandemic that has become a
strange new normal. And I was "less than" for it.

How do we resist comparing our lives, where all the disappointments, hurts and mistakes loom in comparison to those we see online and are curated, managed, filtered and edited? Because of the pandemic, people are spending a significant period of their lives online and behind a screen. It seems this is likely amplified for many—this unconscious comparison and constant critique—and it can be contributing to a chronic disconnection from one other.

As a result of an increase in social media use and time spent on apps, it seems as though
many people have forgotten it is enough to "survive" a pandemic. Worth is inherent, rather
then measured by achievement, busyness and successful sourdough bread recipes. TikTok, Instagram, Facebook; they are fairy tales. Convincing facades. But like a facade, while the
exterior may shine and it may feel like connection, underneath we may miss the problems (both
of others and ourselves), the distress, depression, anxiety, loneliness, disconnection, and
disordered eating.

What, then, are the repercussions? We are isolated by our own shame or guilt related to our perception that others are "doing great" and "so much better" than we are. It makes vulnerability and seeking help even more challenging. Connection, relationships and genuineness can be lost.

I close the apps, thinking about the effects this could have on any one of the patients I've
worked with. I think of the friends, family and colleagues, and what I believe I know about them.
As practitioners, we may need to consider that social media may be contributing to a distortion
of perception and a disconnection for our patients.

Here are a few tips to thrive "beyond the screen":
  • Find alternate ways to interact. Get creative! Set up a socially distanced picnic, organize a game night over Zoom or attend a virtual book club.

  • Disconnect from social media. Schedule time away from your phone (start small and lengthen the time each day). Instead, read a book, play with your pet, explore outside, or tend to plants.

  • Keep therapy going. If you are struggling with thoughts of comparison, loneliness, negative body image, depression, or disordered eating, it may be beneficial to reach out to your treatment team. Therapeutic support in infinitely helpful in maintaining recovery.

Emily DeMalto, MS, is the Clinical Program Manager at The Renfrew Center of Philadelphia - Spring Lane. She joined Renfrew in 2018 as the Education Liaison and joined Programming in February 2020.
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