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How Instagram Can Trigger Imposter Syndrome—And How to Overcome It

by Bella Gerard

When I create a post on Instagram, my primary concern is how each individual photo will enhance my profile’s feed. The look I’m going for is colorful, curated and bright, and the overall aesthetic matters more to me than the number of likes a singular post receives. In many ways, designing my feed is like successfully arranging the pieces of a puzzle, but in a modern, filtered, Facetuned 2018 way. I’ve struggled with nailing the perfect balance between pride in my content and feeling like I’m faking it — and I know I’m not the only one. Imposter syndrome is real, people, and it could be affecting your mental health without you even realizing it.

Your Instagram is so good! Your life/job/hair looks amazing! You’re living the dream! These are all compliments I’ve received numerous times within the past few weeks — and trust me, I’m not here to humblebrag about it. Despite the fact that each of these sentiments was offered with the utmost sincerity, each time I receive praise, a voice in my head begs to differ, insisting, They see right through you. You aren’t fooling anyone. As a result, I constantly feel the need to rebuke this praise, desperate to debunk the beautiful life I’ve crafted out of pictures. Each compliment, however well-intentioned, leaves me increasingly more anxious, desperate to reassure people that my life is far less perfect than it seems on social media.

Why am I so worked up over positive feedback, one might ask? It’s the result of imposter syndrome, a phenomenon that essentially renders me my own worst critic, as well as someone who both relies on upon and yet constantly second-guesses the approval of others. To get a better understanding of this imposter syndrome, I turned to Elizabeth Lombardo, Ph.D., the author of Goodbye Imposter Syndrome and Better Than Perfect: 7 Strategies to Crush Your Inner Critic and Create a Life You Love. When I asked her to break things down, she defined imposter syndrome as “a state of fear that you are not really who you appear to be and that others will figure it out soon.” This might sound a little extreme, but Dr. Lombardo insists it’s far more common than you’d think, especially for social media users and Instagram fanatics like myself.

“All types of people experience imposter syndrome,” says Dr. Lombardo. “Examples include people who are seen by others as successful (executives, professional actors/sports figures), new moms (‘I have no idea what I am doing’) and those portraying to others a ‘perfect’ life (such as those on social media).” It’s that last example that really resonates with me — I put effort into my social presence, and yet I grapple with mixed feelings when my work is met with the praise I thought I wanted.

As a blogger and beauty writer, creating and perfecting content for my personal Instagram has always come naturally to me. I view the platform as a space to get creative and connect with others —whether that involves spamming Instagram Stories with the products I’ve been loving, or posting a photo at a must-go brunch spot to give others a heads up on my French toast findings. These images don’t just magically fit my Instagram’s vibe, of course; it can take a lot of work to get them looking just right. I use one app to edit my images (a little red eye and teeth whitening, the occasional smoothing of a shiny forehead), another to filter to get the colors just right (bright and vibrant, lots of greenery with crystal-clear pops of white), and a final app to preview them on my Instagram feed, so I can create an order for what to post when. None of the above pre-planning and editing really strikes me as fake or inauthentic, but low self-esteem has led me to believe that, despite how good my Instagram feed looks, real-life me will never measure up. Therefore, when the compliments roll in via likes and comments, I feel unfit to accept them.

According to Dr. Lombardo, research shows that about 70 percent of the population experiences imposter syndrome, and she claims to have seen an increase in people struggling as a result of social media. “Many people post pictures or quotes that represent their ideal self,” explains Dr. Lombardo. “They want others to see them in this positive light because they want to see themselves in this positive light. However, once you put those posts out there, then there is the sense that people think that is your normal, especially when people make comments like, ‘You are so beautiful’ or, ‘How lucky you are!’ And that is when the imposter syndrome starts creeping in. Your inner critic starts screaming, ‘You are such a phony; if only they knew!’”

For me, this makes total sense. In real life, I am a complex creature; on Instagram, I am still me, but I only highlight the best parts of me for others to see. I choose to post positively even on days when the reality is that I’m just getting by. Real-life me struggles with depression, anxiety, weight gain, and body image. I long for closer friendships and healthier relationships, and there are days when getting out of bed is a major challenge — but based on my Instagram, you’d think I chose a lazy day off under the covers. Don’t get me wrong, I love social media, and I post because I genuinely enjoy doing so, not because I feel obligated to. I think platforms like Instagram can be really creative, inspirational, healthy spaces when used and consumed properly. What I’m trying to say is, Instagram isn’t the problem here: oftentimes, the real problem is the way in which we tether it to our self-worth.

“There can certainly be a happy medium between curating content and feeling like you are tricking people,” says Dr. Lombardo. “It all has to do what you say to yourself about the posts, not the posts themselves.” Keep in mind, I’m not ashamed of the parts of myself I don’t post – they’re just private, and that’s okay. I’m not a bad person because I don’t share intimate details of my life online, and not everyone who follows me on social media gets the privilege of seeing all of me. The imposter syndrome hits, though, when I realize what a curated life must look like from an outsider’s perspective: so, so good. The nicer people are online, the more I worry I’m living a lie. But having a greater understanding of why this online praise affects me so much makes it easier for me to ignore that discouraging voice in my head, and reminds myself why I post the way I do: because I like to. Because I want to. Not because I’m a fraud, or because I want to create a better, digitalized self.

In Dr. Lambardo’s book, Goodbye Imposter Syndrome, she includes tips on how to cope with and overcome feelings of imposter syndrome brought on by your social media presence and interactions. Taking Dr. Lombardo’s suggestions to heart has dramatically shifted how I allow my Instagram to impact my sense of self-worth, and I highly recommend implementing her advice next time you feel a wave of imposter syndrome come crashing in.

Realize Imposter Syndrome is Common

When I first started having these feelings, I honestly thought I was the only one. It turns out, I’m far from alone when it comes to dealing with imposter syndrome, and even the most successful people can sometimes feel overwhelmed by it.

Acknowledge That People Know Social Media is a Snapshot of Your Life

There’s really no reason to feel guilty for wanting to put your best on social media — you’re not being deceitful just because you’re choosing to highlight the best. After all, Instagram would be a huge downer if all we ever posted were unhappy or negative photos and captions! It’s not required for you to put all that you are on the Internet for others to see and judge.

Cultivate Your Unconditional Self-Worth

As for the parts of you that you do decide to share online? Focus on believing in yourself and practicing self-love regardless of external praise or circumstances. If you recognize your own worth, Likes and comments will just be another thing on your screen, not something that shapes your happiness.

Post Something That is More Consistent With Your True Self 

You definitely don’t need to ‘come clean,’ but if you’re really feeling like your online persona is a lie, try sharing a true struggle or a photo you don’t absolutely love. Dr. Lombardo refers to this practice as “focusing on being better than perfect,” and notes that most of the time, people value authenticity over perfection, anyway.

Feature image via Stocksy

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