How to Not Let Instagram Ruin Your Life (Part 1)

First step is a gut check.

By Camille Styles
camille styles at east austin succulents

There are two types of people when it comes to the way you responded to this headline. In one camp are those who, like my mom, are bewildered by the idea that a social media platform would be anything but (at best) a fun way to keep in touch with friends and (at worst), a total waste of time. Then there’s the rest of us.

We may have cringed a little because it struck too close to home, or maybe reinforced something in our lives we already know needs to be addressed. For us, Instagram can be a minefield of comparison, insecurity, and anxiety.

And I fear that it may be even worse for those on the younger end of the spectrum: at a recent dinner with a group of close girl friends in their twenties, every woman in attendance confided that looking at Instagram regularly made her feel somehow less-than. I looked around the table at my beautiful, smart, accomplished friends, and could only think: This. Is. Nuts.

nitsa citrine taking a photo at home in malibu

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this topic and dealing with my own inner demons when it comes to my relationship with social media, and I’m happy to report that I’ve come a long way over the past year or so. When I look back on my journal entries from last winter, I was on a roller coaster between hating the way that Instagram sometimes made me feel, and also loving the opportunities it provides to be creative, express myself, and lift up my community. I knew I didn’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater (ie. quit Instagram altogether), but something had to give. Here’s an excerpt I found in one of my journal entries from that time:

I feel like I’m often holding back from fully living life the way that I want to, and I think it has to do with social media. There’s this part of me that constantly feels slightly preoccupied with feeling that whenever I’m having a great experience, I should be posting about it. Which is completely counterproductive because it prevents me from being fully present in that experience. This focus on what I’m posting on Instagram may look great on the outside, but in reality, it’s a poor imitation of a real life.

Oof. Writing that entry was a turning point for me, because it caused me to get real about what I was doing on Instagram, and how I was spending my time and my thoughts. Having young kids has only made these past few years fly by even faster, and I don’t want to waste a single minute stressing about things that don’t really matter. To quote Mary Oliver:

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

I, for one, don’t want those plans to have anything to do with likes, comments, or “engagement.” Here’s how I’ve gotten clear on how to use Instagram in a way that feeds my soul, while keeping real joy, real relationships, and real life at the forefront.

instagram on phone

Get clear on my reason for posting.

It starts with a basic gut check. Why are you on Instagram, and what are you hoping to gain from it? So often, whether we realize it or not, we’re posting to receive external validation. When you think about it, “likes” are really just another way of assigning social value, whether it’s cool factor, attractiveness, success, or fame.

I want to be living from a place where I’m not looking to others to validate me, because I know my inherent worth that comes from within. So what should our reason for posting be? In my experience, the type of post that leaves us feeling good is when it’s aligned with:

  • our values (is this the type of person I want to be?)
  • the type of energy we want to give to others (how do my posts make others feel?)
  • the way we want to feel (do I want to feel positive and uplifted? Then I need to engage with Instagram in a way that doesn’t leave me feeling envious or cynical.)

Try this exercise: Once you’ve gotten intentional about what you want to put out there on Instagram, plan your posts accordingly, then consciously choose to leave it. As in, don’t overthink it, don’t analyze the engagement or likes, don’t archive it if you don’t like the response. Just post what feels good to you and be confident that your motivation is in the right place. When you’re in this headspace, you’re freed up to be truly authentic, instead of being caught in the quest for likes (which ultimately, you have no control over.)

And remember: this is Instagram, not brain surgery. Feel free to experiment, be creative, be silly, just be you.

journal instead of spending too much time on instagram

Get clear on what genuinely brings me joy.

If we want our days to be full of those moments that bring us joy and make us feel really alive, we’ve got to be clear about what that means for us personally. It requires us to slow down and leave enough space in our schedule to do the things that feel nourishing to our soul, make us laugh out loud, or fill us with next-level energy.

So what does this have to do with Instagram? Well, for many of us, social media is taking up increasingly more space in our schedules. According to the Global Web Index, Generation Z-ers spend 3 hours per day on social media, with Millennials come in at 2 hours and 39 minutes. Something that takes up this much of our lives will inevitably have a direct affect on how we feel, so we have to ask ourselves whether social media brings us deep fulfilling joy. If not, we need to change the way we’re interacting with it, spend drastically less time using it — and most likely, do a little of both.

Living an aligned life means learning to connect our actions to the things we say are important to us.

Try this exercise: Make a list of the things that you do daily, weekly, and seasonally that bring you energy and leave you with a strong sense of fulfillment. Here are some of the things on my own list, to help get your creative juices flowing:

  • Daily: meditation/prayer, collaborating with my team on creative projects, writing for the site, making dinner and eating with my family.
  • Weekly: a good pilates session, lunch date with a friend, doing something of service (like taking dinner to a friend who just had a baby.)
  • Seasonally: taking the kids on a “nature adventure,” organizing my closet and doing a wardrobe refresh.

Once you’ve got your list together, regularly review it and put these items on your calendar to ensure you’re making space in your life for what’s important. Do less of what drains you and more of what fills you up.

kat tanita's venice beach bedroom

Rediscover the fun of truly connecting online.

So why aren’t we just quitting Instagram altogether? Well, for me, social media can be an incredible place to connect with people I care about and discover people and places that inspire me. So let’s be intentional about using the platform for good! A while ago, we shared this post with sage advice from some of our favorite Instagrammers who have learned to channel their feeds for positivity. Here are some of my favorite pieces of wisdom they shared:

Brooklyn Decker: I highly advise showing the not-so-filtered side of yourself on social media. It’s incredibly liberating, you’ll find a huge sense of community from people who are in the same boat. You won’t be setting an unrealistic expectation for yourself; you, unfiltered, are more than enough.

Jessi Afshin: I created a new Instagram account to spin off my fashion blog, called @my_darling_diary, that is dedicated solely to encouraging women, providing hope, and squashing the lies of social media. I like to think of it like flashcards–a creative picture with an encouraging message to jumpstart a weekday morning.

Jen Pinkston: Be really honest with yourself about why you’re on social media. For me, that answer has three parts: (1) It works as a photo diary, documenting our life in pictures. (2) It helps me to reach more people with the content we create and connect with our blog audience in a quicker, more impromptu way. (3) It’s a way for me to stay connected with friends… especially ones that I don’t see as often as I would like.

Julie Le: It wasn’t until I abandoned social media for months that I was able to pinpoint the positive mental benefits and purpose. I missed sharing genuine content and connecting with people from all walks of life. I could easily blame social media and technology for times that I felt low on life but I’ve realized it’s more about my general disposition. When I feel negativity creep in, I try to look at other parts of myself that are imbalanced. More often than not, it’s my mental or physical health that are off kilter. Then, I use social media as a tool to source positive affirmations or new workouts!

Try this exercise: Each time you open up a social media app this week, do the following things:

  1. Leave an encouraging comment on a friend’s post.
  2. Check out the latest posts from someone who shares content that inspires you (recipes, beautiful interiors, uplifting messages — whatever makes you smile or feeds your creativity.)
  3. Share something in your feed or on Stories that you find beautiful, interesting, funny, inspiring, or vulnerable. Then close out the app and go do something else instead of watching for the response.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this post! How does social media make you feel? Have you tried to be intentional about the way you use it? Share your experience below, and I’ll post a couple more of my strategies for living a fully engaged life (even with Instagram!) in parts 2 and 3 of this series soon.