‘You can’t judge a book by its cover’
Back in the day, I used to take a mischievous delight in challenging anyone who I ever heard say this.
‘Really? How else do you decide whether to buy a book? And what’s the point of the cover if not to help you make a judgement about whether it’s worth reading?
So, yes, I’m a pedantic pain in the arse.
Thankfully, the advent of ebooks and online reviews means people can now dispense this old wisdom without fear of such irritating interruptions. And there’s a lot of wisdom there to take. Both as a general warning against judging any situation too quickly, and – more importantly in the context of mental health – that appearances can be deceptive.
In other words, that friend of yours with the seemingly perfect life? Behind closed doors he spends his hours sat on a three legged stool eating nothing but pink bubble gum whilst talking to his pet caterpillar.
I was recently reminded of this problem, when I found myself uniquely on the other side of the lens.
A colleague was suffering from stress, and experiencing some of the same symptoms I had last year. Sadly, she was in too much of a rush for a proper chat, so as she was leaving I offered a quick warning…
‘Take it easy and don’t let yourself get too stressed. You don’t want to end up like me!’
‘Oh, I wish’
As I walked away, and thought about her tone and body language, the horror began to hit. She wasn’t – as I had automatically assumed – being cheekily sarcastic. This was genuine envy… I thought about running after her:
‘Wait! Things aren’t as they appear! I’m actually severely depressed and in constant inner turmoil! In fact, I’d barely finished sobbing in the toilets when I bumped into you!’
Alas, the moment was gone. But, the lesson was learnt. If even I – the most openly screwed-up person I know – can appear enviable, then you really really can’t trust outside appearances.
Which brings me onto Facebook. That great forum of baby/animal/food photos, ‘inspirational’ quotes’ and – as I recently shouted in a fit of bitterness:
Five minutes of looking at my Facebook feed, and you’d be hard pressed not to conclude everyone else has millions of friends, are in happy relationships, and are doing the jobs of their dreams. And when they’re not working, they’re ‘checking in’ at trendy restaurants, drinking exotic cocktails, and uploading bizarre pictures of their legs (or hotdogs, I can’t always tell the difference).
The positive thinking brigade would probably tell me this should make me happy. That I should be happy that my friends are living such amazing lives… While I’m lying in bed, barely able to wash and feed myself.
But… Well… It’s not quite that easy, is it? Because, some of us have this unhelpful habit of benchmarking ourselves against our acquaintances. And by ‘some of us’ I mean ‘almost every decent person I’ve ever met’.
This is especially problematic in cultures like the UK, where people have an unhealthy obsession with ego and status. Keep a stiff upper lip. Don’t wash your dirty linen in public. And whatever you do, don’t give an honest reply if someone asks, ‘How are you?’!
In this context, it seems only natural that so many of us experience schadenfreude; that guilty pleasure when bad things happy to other people. It’s not that we’re fundamentally evil. It’s just that we long to feel that we’re not the only ones with messy and challenging lives.
I, for example, experience very mixed emotions when a friend confesses they’re suffering from mental health problems. Clearly, I’d rather they didn’t. I want my friends to be happy and healthy, whereas I wouldn’t wish depression on anyone. But at the same time… And I feel quite ashamed of admit this… it is a relief to know I’m not the only nut in the house.
For a ‘social utility’ that promises to ‘connect people with friends’ this might be why I (and many others) often feel so sad and lonely after using Facebook. It just doesn’t support the kind of interactions that make me feel accepted for who I am. Don’t get me wrong, it’s nice when I upload a photo, or post a status, that gets a lot of ‘likes’. But the reverse, is sadly doubly true. The times when you most need a hug, and upload a vulnerable or very personal status, are exactly the times when you’ll be ignored.
Which is why, last month, I left Facebook. I wouldn’t advise the same for everyone – Facebook is, like it or not, a part of modern life. But I would advise you to think about how you use Facebook and, in particular, how you tend to feel after using it. One thing that might help, is this little tip from Oliver Burkeman‘s ‘Help! How to become slightly happier and get a bit more done‘ (which, by the way, everyone should read). Next time you’re on Facebook looking forlornly at someone’s show-off holiday pics (or perhaps even in real life when someone’s boasting about themselves) just imagine a little box pop up that says,
Because you can’t judge a Facebook friend by their cover photo.