I'd like to talk about a unique topic where the worlds of psychology and social media overlap, and that's around the concept of cognitive distortions.
If you’re not familiar with the term, cognitive distortions are "irrational thoughts and beliefs we have about ourselves and our place in the world we unknowingly reinforce over time."
All of us have these distorted thoughts from time to time, like…
“I'm so fat.”
“I should be a better parent.”
“I’m a total moron when it comes to math.”
However, for some people, these kinds of thoughts can spiral out of control and play a role in conditions like depression or anxiety. That’s why references to the term “cognitive distortions” usually stays firmly rooted in the world of psychology.
That’s a shame, because social media is, for better or worse, where cognitive distortions run amuck like the world’s largest room of funhouse mirrors--the place where I think they can do the most damage.
Why is that important to talk about?
This problem can occur in three different ways.
The easiest way thoughts get distorted online is when people who harbor cognitive distortions simply post those distorted thoughts on social media, thereby amplifying their power and distorting them even further.
For example, if someone posts, "I'm such a slob, all I wear is sweatpants every day," on Facebook and someone replies, "Me too!" the person struggling with distorted thinking won't take that reply as a comfort (Hey, I do that too! You're normal!), but rather as a confirmation that yes, they are indeed a slob.
That's why it's important to do some deep thinking (or preferably therapy) if you're prone to cognitive distortions to identify your objective in sharing those thoughts online. This may help you share those feelings in a way that's ultimately healthier for you in the future.
For example, if your objective in posting about sweatpants is to feel reassured that your love of them is normal, you could say something like, "Sometimes I feel like a slob for wearing sweatpants all the time. Anyone else struggle with this?" That kind of post would open you up to emotional connection instead of keeping you trapped in a judgement loop.
If you're the person interacting with these kind of distorted posts, it's worth giving some thought as to why that person is sharing this information and what kind of response they may be looking for, in return. Remember, simply ignoring these kinds of posts is a type of response too. For example, when someone posts "I'm such a failure" and no one responds, that convinces the person that their distortion is true.
Let me be perfectly clear, I'm not implying you should be the steward for everyone else's mental health online. I get that you want to simply hit the "like" button on a comment about sweatpants and be done with it. I'm just asking people to consider that not every interaction you have online may be as cut and dried as it seems. Sometimes there is a hidden level to the conversations you’re having with other people, so whenever possible try to use empathy in your interactions.
If you’re not prone to having cognitive distortions, that’s great. (But honestly, have you read the list? MANY of us have these thoughts). However, you may still be posting things on social media that are inadvertently triggering to those who are. (Uh-oh. I used the "T" word...here comes the trolling!)
Two examples are regularly getting on a soapbox and posting about what you think other people really should do, (e.g. save the planet, volunteer their time, parent their kids better) or posting something that is an overgeneralization or generalized attack like, “I really hate when some people act like they're better than everyone else."
People with no mental health issues will likely just ignore or mute these kinds of posts. However, others may feel genuinely shamed by your words, spending hours wondering if they are that "someone" you're calling out or beating themselves up for not doing enough. Again, this is their emotional issue to deal with, not yours. However, it’s worth thinking about before you start spouting off.
Unfortunately, you may also trigger people with seemingly benign posts. For example, if everyone posts happy couple pictures on Valentines, (even the couples who fought the day before, even the couples in counseling, even the couples who are no longer speaking to each other), that sends a message to someone who is prone to distorted thinking that yes, they ARE alone and will likely never find someone with whom to share similar love and happiness.
Again, I’m not saying this means you should walk around second guessing everything you post online or that you can’t share happy things because it will make sad people even sadder.
I’m asking you to consider that attacking posts may feel genuinely threatening to those who are already at war in their mind. I'm asking you to consider that adding a rosy glow to everything you post may have a very real affect on people who are living in darkness.
The last area where distortions come into play is the one people talk about the least, and that's the idea that, in some respects, social media is one giant cognitive distortion.
Not only do interactions and algorithms create filter bubbles that warp what we experience online as "reality," we users have also created online personas and digital histories for ourselves that may not actually match up with real life.
We all make small omissions/additions to the things we post on social media in order to create a portrait of ourselves that we feel is suitable for public consumption. What we often don’t think about is the overall story we are telling other people over time about ourselves through that collection of posts. Because all of those small omissions/additions/white lies can slowly distort "the truth," sometimes without our conscious knowledge.
All of us likely have firsthand experience with this--when the reality of a situation doesn't line up with the story being told online. I’m as guilty of the practice as anyone else. Recently I posted on Facebook a series of happy go-lucky pictures of a trip I took with my daughter to Winnipeg that, in reality, was marred by pain and trouble I had walking. I chose to leave out the yucky parts of the trip simply because it was easier.
The problem is we rarely think about how other people regularly compare their own lives to our distorted, highly curated stories. We rarely acknowledge that other people may feel weak, ashamed, or insufficient simply because we’ve only chosen to share stories in which we appear to be strong, confident, and up for any challenge.
To combat this, periodically read back through your feed of social media posts and ask yourself, “If I were a new friend/follower reading this, who would I think I am? Is that an accurate portrait of me? Is that the story I want to be telling them?” Better yet, ask an online-only friend, "How would you describe me to a stranger?"
What's reflected back to you may be more distorted than you'd suspect.
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I’m a consultant, strategist, author, educator, and speaker with more than 30 years of professional experience. I’m passionately curious, fairly sassy, kinda dorky and seriously good at what I do.