health

“The day after posting this ‘picture-perfect’ photo, I checked into a perinatal mental health unit.”

Eighteen months ago, if you clicked onto my Instagram, you’d think I had my sh*t together.

My social media presence made it look like my life was a montage of satisfying career accolades and wholesome moments with my baby daughter and doting husband. Oh, and you’d think my hair was always spot-on.

There’s one photo that shows me, back to the camera, at the beach holding my baby daughter up for a kiss. She’s giggling cutely into my shoulder, the sun is highlighting my blonde topknot, and laid out before me is a crystal-clear rock pool.

Image: Supplied.

It’s idyllic, and frankly, it's bullshit.

At the time I posed for that photo, I was experiencing serious stress and burn-out. I’d had a baby four months prior, and I’d become fixated on trying to do the motherhood thing perfectly – while trying to keep my professional life spinning, my friendships afloat and my lippie intact.

I’d always been a perfectionist with a tendency toward people-pleasing, but becoming a mum took things to the next level. 

The problem was, while running on miniscule levels of sleep and recovering from a caesarean section, my body and brain just wouldn’t play ball.

The day after I took that photo on the beach, four months after I became a mum, the pressures weighing on me came to a head.

I’d developed fantasies of depositing my daughter with her dad for a week and running away to a five-star resort, where my phone would magically deactivate and I wouldn’t have to write back to anyone’s text messages. 

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I wasn’t depressed, but I was so… very… tired. I was burned out, and my anxiety was off the charts.

So I checked into a perinatal mental health unit (which went by the gentle euphemism ‘mother and baby unit’) – and so began my break-up with Instagram.

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How I logged off Instagram – and stayed off

The mental health unit had a rule: No phones on while the babies were awake. The idea was to create space to, bond with our babies, and focus on recovery in the present moment.

Since my baby wasn’t a big daytime sleeper, my phone was off most of the time.

For the first time in years, I took a semi-forced break from Instagram – and felt liberated as hell.

Without the compulsion to document every cute milestone, I was free to live my life rather than viewing it from behind a phone screen.

We went for daily walks in the park and I found I could actually enjoyed myself (rather than taking 30 photos to document how much we were enjoying ourselves.)

When I checked out of the hospital after five days, I found I was relishing the freedom from the Instagram-imposed pressure to live a perfect life. 

So I deleted the app, and I haven’t downloaded it again since. 

Instagram’s relationship to people-pleasing and perfectionism 

I’m not the only one who has found freedom after breaking up with Instagram. In the process of writing my book The Yes Woman, I’ve spent the last 18 months interviewing hundreds of women and experts about how to overcome perfectionism and people-pleasing.

One theme I heard again and again was this: Social media is terrible for our mental health – and the instantaneous feedback available on Instagram, in particular, is a match to the flame of our people-pleasing, perfectionistic tendencies.

Just how does Instagram make us feel so damn terrible?

On the one hand, it makes perfection appear attainable by inundating us with endless images that are, quite literally, edited for perfection.

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Today, reality stars and fitness ‘influencers’ on Instagram promote an almost impossible-to achieve-look: Very slender and very white – with incredible toned, rock-hard abs, full lips, curvy bums and boobs to boot.

Instagram also bombards us with the highlight reels of other people’s lives – and for those of us with people-pleasing and perfectionistic tendencies, it can feel near-impossible not to compare our regular, warts-and-all lives with the picture-perfect images on our screens.

We inevitably find we come up short – and it makes us miserable. 

One Australian study has found that just 30 minutes a day scrolling Instagram can make women fixate negatively on their weight and appearance. 

Another US study found “consistently that both liking others’ content and clicking links significantly predicted a subsequent reduction in self-reported physical health, mental health, and life satisfaction”. 

Social media can also compel us to curate our own image in an effort to keep up. 

The people-pleasers among us find ourselves preoccupied with what others think and freaked out at the prospect of somebody seeing our less-than-perfect bits, so we desperately try to curate our own image.

All this fear about what other people thinks is anxiety-inducing – and it’s unnatural. 

Grace with her 12-day-old baby. Image supplied. 

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As technology ethicist Tristan Harris notes in Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma, we weren’t built to be aware of what one thousand (or more) people thought of us: “We were not evolved to have social approval being dosed to us every five minutes.”

Considering an Instagram detox? Try these strategies

Want to join me in the reformed Instagrammers club? These five approaches can get you started.

Take a trial break and see how it feels

One tactic is to consider a break from Instagram for a day, week or month to see the difference those changes make to your time, money and energy.

Sometimes, stepping off the treadmill of preening, selfie-ing and filtering can give you perspective on how much of yourself you’re really pouring into curating your online image.

Ask yourself if selfies actually feel... good

While you’re on your Instagram break, step back and ask yourself: Is all the filtering and editing and posting making you feel great – or fuelling your perfectionistic, people-pleasing need for approval?

For me, it’s the latter – which is why I deleted the app off my phone after my burnout episode. 

I realised Instagram had become an enormous time-suck that directly hooked me into an approval-seeking, insecure, anxious way of being.

I want to acknowledge here that for other women, taking selfies is a fun pastime, a way of expressing themselves – or a money-maker – that’s worth their energy. 

When I interviewed feminist queen and popular Instagrammer Abbie Chatfield for my book, she spoke about how you can use social media to reclaim your image, or post a thirst trap because it feels damn good.

Where it gets more problematic though, Abbie suggests, is when you’re posting selfies out of insecurity and a need for validation – or as she put it, “editing yourself to what you think is a societal expectation of what men want and then uploading that for validation.”

Remind yourself most Insta pics are edited

As women, we tend to compare ourselves more with Instagram images than professional shots of celebrities in magazines

After all, Instagram promotes the illusion of a peek into other women’s ‘real lives’ – so we feel like those lives should be achievable to us, as mere mortals, as well.

The problem is, researchers have found that body image dissatisfaction is actually worse when we’re comparing ourselves to social media friends rather than celebrities. 

So it’s important to keep reminding yourself that social media only features the highlights – not all the mundane pyjamas-and-hangover moments – from your acquaintances’ lives. 

Remember this: That girl on the yacht probably has really bad gingivitis or shocking taste in dates – she just didn’t mention that in her latest post about how #blessed she is.

What’s more, many of your Instagram contacts are probably filtering the hell out their images. (Did you know that 68 per cent of adults apply some kind of photo editing before they share any photo online or with a friend, according to one study?) 

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So next time you find yourself marvelling at an acquaintance’s perfect skin on Instagram, don’t forget: She’s probably using one of a dozen cheap-and-easy slimming photo apps to filter and tweak and ‘Facetune’ her image.

Consider keeping a private Instagram account

Can’t bring yourself to delete Instagram?

At least promise me you’ll consider two things. 

First, unfollow those diet-focused fitness influencers, humblebraggers and old friends with irritatingly glossy lives, so you’ll be less likely to desire their seemingly perfect (and probably highly edited) lives/jobs/abs.

Secondly, consider keeping your own account private, so it’s only visible to close friends and family.

You can use your private account to be your authentic, unimpressive self, to share genuine moments of joy, or to share life updates with your inner circle. No filters required.

If you think you or someone you know may be suffering from depression, contact PANDA – Post and Antenatal Depression Association. You can find their website here or call their helpline – 1300 726 306.

Grace Jennings-Edquist is the author of The Yes Woman: How to reclaim your power by finally saying no ($29.99, Affirm Press), out now.

Image: Supplied.

Feature Image: Supplied.