It's something you hear (at least I did) throughout my entire education. "Market yourself, market yourself, market yourself!" Sometimes it came in the form of "know your brand," but the jest was about the same: know who you are, tell other people about yourself, make them want you. I heard this from professors, from advisers, from friends, from practically anyone that wanted to guide me in a direction. We use social media to connect with others, share ourselves, and hopefully (for some) entice a potential employer to give us that coveted chance to prove ourselves.
It isn't a bad thing—in fact, when done correctly and (as I'll emphasize later) in healthy moderation, it can be what lands you that job, what opens a door to new adventures, or what helps you figure out what you want. But it's right there, in that last little bit, that often times found me stuck and obsessing and stressing endlessly.
I'll be honest, I let myself be consumed by it.
It started with my love of photography. I just really enjoy taking pictures, even if they're not great and especially if I'm still learning. There's just something freeing about taking a day to myself and driving where I want, seeing what I want, and letting myself be immersed in the world. I can remember stealing away my mom's little Kodak camera (and breaking two—maybe three of them) and running around, snapping pictures of flowers, insects, my dogs, and whatever else caught my eye. As I grew up and slowly learned about composition, lighting, and all the other good things, I began to watch other photographers.
As I created an Instagram account (and later, this online portfolio + blog) to display my images, I started following people that inspired me. I posted everything and anything. It was the free era before the whole "build your aesthetic" deal came into play. As the years progressed and I started photographing friend's weddings, portraits, places, etc., I allowed myself to become a little more obsessed with other people's work. I became engrossed in their techniques, how they colored an image, what gear they used, and where they traveled.
I'm not sure when it started, but I was putting myself in a position to constantly put my work against others, comparing their obvious skill to my lack. I saw people that had just a few hundred followers find their pace and suddenly skyrocket their audience into the thousands. I saw friends find their loves in life (both of the hobby and relationship kind) and I felt like I was falling behind.
In the last year, I had it in my head that I clearly wasn't branding myself correctly. My work wasn't good enough; my life wasn't good enough. I kept hearing the chant of "Market yourself!" and I replied back with "What more can I do?" I started numerous blogs, hit almost every social media platform, and worked continuously to create (not always the best) content and put it out on the web.
Within the last couple months, I swear I had a minor breakdown every few days. My poor mother—the rock that she is—had to listen to my tireless rants about how I had no idea what I was doing, everyone else was living such exotic, adventurous lifestyles and here I was in little Janesville, Wisconsin, how will I ever amount to anything? My life, it seemed, became a need to check my accounts. I would be astounded that people were following me and then crushed when they left. I was looking at my phone every time it lit up; did someone like my post?! I was basing my own self-worth on how many people liked a photo, commented on a status, clicked through a link, reblogged a post, and all I wanted was to feel like I was marketing myself; like I mattered. I wanted to feel like someone would look at my work—my life—and think, "Look at everything she's doing! Isn't it amazing?"
It wasn't until just two weeks ago that I finally snapped. I was at a job where I felt I was in a gray haze, I was unhappy with my work, and I wasn't sure what I wanted in life. And then a few things happened to help me realize that none of it matters.
Part of it was confiding in a friend how their life made mine feel not as grand. It really was petty. I feel embarrassed even admitting to it, but I'm hoping that getting it all out, it will help me to not dwell on it anymore. Their response was one of such grace and kindness that immediately I felt the shame that comes with realizing I was stressed by things that really, and I mean really, don't matter.
The virtual world is just that: virtual. Don't get me wrong; I've met some absolutely amazing people via social media. I've learned so much and made friendships that I didn't even know I could have. I've found that the talents I admire in other people are ones that I have myself. I have felt inspired and have inspired others. It's a beautiful ebb and flow of creation and I feel fortunate to live in an era where it's all possible.
That being said, it's a dangerous line to toe. I found out how quickly it can spiral into an unhealthy obsession. It's so easy to become concerned with trivial things while on the journey to better yourself. In a society of instant gratification, it's very scary how quickly it can become such an ingrained part of your day. I've deleted a few accounts, turned most notifications off on my phone, and have slowly worked away from social media. Not to belittle such a thing, but it was like treating an addiction. (I originally typed the phrase 'almost like treating,' but I realized that my obsession really was— and still is— an addiction.)
We only ever see the good that people post. We see their vacations, their homes and friends, the amazing things they're doing. But how often do we talk to them? How often to we reach out and really see how they are? It's simple to 'like' something, or 'double tap,' but do we ever connect? We're not getting the whole picture. People don't want to post the bad, but that doesn't mean it isn't happening. We don't want to share our struggles with the entire world—that makes sense. However, we shouldn't write it off that someone must have a perfect life. No one has a perfect life, but we all have small, beautiful things that happen every day and that's something we should have the chance to relish in.
It's completely ridiculous to compare our lives to someone else's. We are all experiencing such different things at different times, why do we bother? With social media, we get a small window into so many worlds. I guess it would only come naturally, with our human emotions and desires, to see this as another way to compare ourselves. It shouldn't be.
I realize this topic has been discussed a thousand and one times, so what does one more blog post matter? But to me, it's a little more than that. I'm not adding one more blog post to a sea of motivational posts. I'm just writing the words that I need to in order for me to better understand why these things happen. You don't have to 'like' it; you don't have to 'reblog.' I want these words out of my head so I can reflect when I want, and leave them behind. I may want these words for later. I do realize the irony of posting this whole thing online, but mostly it's for me, to find later because I'm crap at keeping things organized and I have a weird dislike of paper journals, or at least, I love collecting them, but I can never keep one up for long. (Maybe it's time to try again.)
I already feel a bit better about this. It will continue to be a struggle—finding the happy medium between catching up and becoming locked in—but it's a struggle that I know I can overcome.
If you do read this, I hope that you may take something from it. Even if it's something as little as “Wow, I hope I never get to that point," or even take away a cautionary tale.
Remember it's OK to market yourself. It's OK to be proud of your work. It's OK to log in and see how everyone is. But remember to unplug once and a while or pretty soon you'll find yourself sucked into a place you'll have to fight to get out of. It's an obvious thing, not to get too involved with your social life, but clearly it wasn't obvious enough to me.