Facebook was the game-changing social media platform that soared in popularity while I was in high school (between the years 2005-2009). During a time when socializing with peers was of utmost importance, as an adolescent, social media seemed like an amazing tool for connecting. Although it did connect us through the web, it also began to highlight the deep divides we felt in relation to one another and even within ourselves. It is well acknowledged today that social media is one of the greatest contributors to the rising mental health issues and feelings of isolation, especially among adolescents and young adults. But, it is only the fuel to an already burning fire: social media is not the root cause of these patterns of issues, but our cultural hyper-valuing of competition is.
More specifically, our overvaluing of competition has isolated us within our own psyches, making it much more difficult to deeply connect with ourselves and others without the fear of failure, social rejection, or unworthiness. It is a strange phenomenon that has caused this to happen: the society we want to belong to has wired our minds into believing competition and winning is most important, and in order to belong we must be a “winner”. But, in order to be a winner, we must believe we are “better than”; we must mentally isolate ourselves by raising our personal value over the value of others. So, even when we believe we have “won” (in order to feel like we belong in this society), we are still left with a deep sense of loneliness and isolation.
For the times we feel like the “losers”, it is usually worse – not only does our mind tell us we do not belong to society, but society might as well, (usually in forms such as bullying and social isolation). And, even when society does not actively isolate or bully us, we still feel isolated; a result of learning to doubt our value and worthiness of belonging in a hyper-competitive society.
Competition itself is not evil or wrong, but our relationship to it as a culture is out of balance. This imbalance has created more fear and division in our society than it has created connection and security. Our psychological relationship to competition is deeply ingrained and so normalized in our lives that it can be difficult to see. When competition and winning is so highly valued, there is little room for vulnerability to be expressed; therefore, the deep bonds that humans need for a stable sense of connection and belonging cannot be formed so easily.
Healthy competition can be a fun part of sports and games and can push us to new heights. But, as a species, we have reached the greatest heights through cooperation. The world, as we know it, functions only because billions of people go to work everyday and contribute a small part to the greater whole of a global network. Yes, competition plays a role, but it is far smaller than we believe it is, even as a capitalist economy. One person alone cannot create, run, and grow a business, a school, a team, a hospital, a country, etc. – it takes the hands, minds, and power of many cooperating together. Highly competitive attitudes tend to steer us away from working together and sharing information, fearing the other person’s potential might get ahead of our own.
An Example of Structured Competition in Society
School is a major organ to the larger body of society that creates and encourages hyper-competitive attitudes. You must get the best grades, and you must outcompete others if you want to be successful and worth something in life. It is a dangerous attitude to teach. It encourages winning at any cost, including your mental health and in some extreme cases, even your life. It encourages bullying. It encourages stress. It encourages burnout. It encourages an unease within the mind and body. It discourages expression and exploration. It discourages compassion, empathy, and real cooperation. It discourages time for reflection, and intuitive insights. It isn’t that these qualities are entirely present or absent within schools, only that these are what structured competition generally encourages and discourages.
We see these themes playing out in real life in schools today. The extreme examples of students feeling isolated and traumatized have resulted in horrific school shootings. It is an undeniable trend across the US, a pattern that cannot be ignored. It seems to be those who feel extremely isolated and completely disconnected from others that are able to commit such atrocities. It is more likely than not, since this is a repeating pattern across the US, that our societal values have a hand in nurturing this extreme behavior.
Social Media: Fuel to the Fire
Winning at life is different for different people, but generally looks like leading the “perfect” life, where everything is in order, everyone is happy and successful, and nothing is wrong. Social media has become the easiest and most accessible tool to both convince others you are winning at life and to assess who else is winning at life. But, scrolling through social media platforms usually contributes to thoughts that we are “less-than” rather than “better-than” or even “equal to” when all we see are people with perfect lives, while knowing ours isn’t.
The combination of social media and extreme competitive values creates ideal conditions for mental health issues and feelings of isolation to thrive. No matter how much we rationalize to ourselves that no one is always happy and feeling good, our brain still sees and absorbs mostly that. This information passes through the filter of our cultural values and beliefs where we have been programed to compare and measure whether we are more or less successful than the people we see.
Are we as successful and happy as they are? Are we worthy of belonging? Many times, our minds immediately assume we are the loser in the situation because we know we aren’t always at our best. In some cases, we might see a post that makes us think we are the more successful person, briefly boosting our sense of worthiness but at the expense of another’s. In either case, this hyperactive comparison and competition will always lead to a greater divide between each other rather than connection.
Social media is not innately bad and it is not innately bad to only share the nicest parts of our life on it. The issue lies within our cultural beliefs that dictate how we have learned to relate to one another – through a mostly competitive lifestyle while having little to no exposure to the realities of the human condition outside our own.
These realities being the vulnerabilities we all feel and experience, especially as teens and young adults: the doubts, the fears, the insecurities, the jealousy, the anger, the sadness, the anxiety, the depression, the loneliness, and even the feelings of joy and love. It is important to know we aren’t alone and to listen to one another. It is important to be there for each other in good times and bad and to not judge each other as successful or not, in response. It is precisely this vulnerability that, when shared, creates the deep connections that people need in order to feel a true sense of belonging and to combat loneliness.
Social media is jet fuel to the already burning fire of competition and social comparison – people have always been “keeping up with the Joneses”. Maybe it’s about time we ask ourselves, why we do it?
One of the most important things for human mental and emotional health is to develop a sense of belonging. You can be the most famous person in the world, greatest athlete, or richest person, but, if you dont have a stable sense of belonging within a community you will feel much lonelier and less emotionally stable than those who do. But in order to develop a stable sense of belonging, we must allow ourselves to connect deeply with others by being vulnerable and allowing ourselves to be truly seen.
In US culture, we have been conditioned to fear vulnerability because it makes us appear weak and unsuccessful, unworthy of being a winner and therefore, unworthy of belonging. Paradoxically, sharing our vulnerabilities with each other is what builds the strongest bonds between people, they are the building blocks of a strong community. Competition in relationships actually divides and separates, it discourages vulnerability and simultaneously creates an environment of constant comparison. Promoting competition within our relationships creates a sense of inequality and instability which, in turn, gives rise to jealousy, conflict, and bullying. Our extreme competitive values have actually weakened our communities rather than making them stronger. It is time we recognize this and change our beliefs about competition and how we connect with ourselves and one another.
Building Stronger Communities from Within
Long term, sustainable solutions for the rising loneliness (and maybe even mental health issues like anxiety and depression) lie in building stronger bonds within a community. Creating times and spaces that are emotionally safe and supportive for people to openly express themselves is needed. Schools most definitely need to implement deep community building activities and courses. It isn’t an easy solution because it will push people far beyond their comfort zones but, it is what will address the root of the issue rather than trying to mask the symptoms.
It is important for us to express our honest emotions while also seeing others doing so – it reminds us that we are all human, that life is not perfect and never will be, and that we need each other’s emotional presence in order to feel the deep belonging and stability we are searching for. Being vulnerable and seeing others be vulnerable creates a sense of equality, encourages empathy, and connects us deeply. We are likely to foster a natural feeling of worthiness and secure sense of belonging the more we create opportunities for people to truly connect and deeply relate to one another within our communities.
We must change the way we operate as a community for our brains to begin to truly believe that “better-than” and “less-than” are just ideas and not real threats to our belonging. We must take responsibility as a society for the people we produce – adults were once children and children are most impressionable. Humans are wired to have a deep desire to belong…if a society sets a precedent of needing to prove ones worthiness of belonging in comparison to others, that creates a highly competitive, highly stressful environment at a very young age. That is the society we have right now and coupled with social media, it has created wildfire conditions for the rising mental health issues and loneliness we see happening. When humans feel that they aren’t good enough, that they don’t belong, or that they don’t feel loved, extreme emotions and behaviors can arise. It may be contrary to capitalist society, but for humans to be most stable, most productive, and most satisfied with life, we must create an environment that believes all humans to be fundamentally worthy of belonging and try our best not to let people slip through the cracks.