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Instagram is supposed to be friendly. So why is it making people so miserable?

For a growing number of users and mental health experts, the positivity of Instagram is precisely the problem, with its relentless emphasis on promoting perfect lifestyles. Should everyone just stop scrolling?

When 24-year-old fashion blogger Scarlett Dixon posted a picture of herself having breakfast, the internet turned nasty. The best of days start with a smile and positive thoughts. And pancakes. And strawberries. And bottomless tea, Dixon wrote on her scarlettlondon Instagram feed, under an image of her looking flawless on a freshly made bed flanked by heart-shaped helium balloons.

The sponsored post for Listerine mouthwash, a bottle of which is visible on the side of the shot was swiftly reposted on Twitter. Fuck off this is anybodys normal morning, wrote Nathan from Cardiff. Instagram is a ridiculous lie factory made to make us all feel inadequate. His post, which has garnered more than 111,000 likes (22 times as many as Dixons original) and almost 25,000 retweets, prompted a wave of criticism, with the more printable comments ranging from Fakelife! and Bunny-boiler to Lets pop her balloons and Who keeps Listerine on their bedside table? Serial killers, thats who.

That hostility feels par for the course on Twitter. The social network is a notorious hotbed of abusive strangers hurling abuse at other abusive strangers, who then all occasionally come together to bully a celebrity off the internet over some minor failing, such as being a woman in a Star Wars film. Instagram, by contrast, looks like the friendliest social network imaginable. Its a visually led community where the primary method of interaction is double-tapping an image to like it, where posts that go viral tend to do so because of positivity rather than outrage and where many of the biggest accounts are famous dogs and cats. Whats not to like?

But, for a growing number of users and mental health experts the very positivity of Instagram is precisely the problem. The site encourages its users to present an upbeat, attractive image that others may find at best misleading and at worse harmful. If Facebook demonstrates that everyone is boring and Twitter proves that everyone is awful, Instagram makes you worry that everyone is perfect except you.

In the days following her initial Instagram post, Dixon pointed out the irony that this fear that the unreality of social media is harming people was itself being used to justify the thousands attacking her.

Each time I refresh my page, hundreds of new nasty messages pour on to my Instagram, Twitter and YouTube, some of which have contained malicious death threats, she wrote in a follow-up Instagram post, accompanying a picture of her in Venice with an ice-cream. There are now hundreds of thousands of tweets circling the internet, shaming me.

My feed isnt a place of reality, Dixon added. I mean who spends their time in such a beautiful city, perched on a ledge, ice-cream in hand and smile permanently affixed to her face? Its staged, guys.

Dixons follow-up Venice post. Photograph: Scarlett London

I personally dont think my content is harmful to young girls, but I do agree Instagram can present a false expectation for people to live up to.

But whether or not Dixons feed is harmful, there is growing support for the idea that Instagram isnt great for its users mental health.

In 2017, the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH), an independent charity that seeks to improve peoples wellbeing, conducted a UK-wide survey of 14- to 24-year-olds, asking them about the big five social media platforms: Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Snapchat and Instagram. Users ranked how their use of the platforms affected everything from the quality of their sleep to their Fomo the fear of missing out on what others are enjoying.

Instagram came last, scoring particularly badly for its effects on sleep, body image and Fomo. Only Snapchat came close in its overall negativity, saved by a more positive effect on real-world relationships, while YouTube scored positively on almost every metric except its effect on sleep, for which it was the worst of all the platforms.

On the face of it, Instagram can look very friendly, says the RSPHs Niamh McDade. But that endless scrolling without much interaction doesnt really lead to much of a positive impact on mental health and wellbeing. You also dont really have control over what youre seeing. And you quite often see images that claim to be showing you reality, yet arent. Thats especially damaging to young men and women.

The risk of developing an unhealthy body image is often highlighted, but McDade emphasises that this is just one aspect. Some people may be looking at feeds full of cars, and its giving them anxiety and depression as they cant afford them.

For Stephen, a 24-year-old from London, the unreality led him to develop unhealthy behaviours online. I was going through a bit of heartbreak at the time, he says, and any experience of seeing my exs name on Instagram killed me. I was pretty down and found myself predominantly using Instagram to either punish myself by looking at my ex, or using the browse feature to distract me. I found myself looking at attractive women a lot when theyd come up in the browse feature, which would then cause more to be shown.

I was getting to a point where I was feeding an unhealthy habit [of forming a warped view of women] and making myself feel worse. Stephen then took a year-long break from the app, during which he wrote a dissertation on its harmful effects on wellbeing and body satisfaction.

The problem with Instagram is that you, almost exclusively, share content that is meant to reflect positively on yourself, he says. On Twitter or Facebook, you see much more content that isnt, Hey, look at my great life.

Almost every user adds fuel to the flames. Even as were being made miserable by the unreal lives that we follow, we share an unreal version of our own lives. I have been on Instagram since 2013 and in the beginning I enjoyed it, says Adnan, a 25-year-old Syrian who lives in Cape Town. But, as the years passed, it changed from being a friendly environment, where most people posted food pictures, into a competitive social platform where everyone filters out their lives to represent a life that does not exist. Nobody looks good all the time, nobody is always happy. When things get tough, I get really upset when I see other people having the perfect life. And yet, Adnan says, I am also guilty of trying to show the best side of my life to people.

But Instagram has always been about looking flawless. What has changed to spark such a backlash? Among users I spoke to, one event was cited time and again: the introduction, in mid-2016, of Instagrams algorithmic timeline. It was one of the largest changes to the platform since it was bought by Facebook in 2012. Rather than presenting users with a cross-section of what the people they were following were up to at any given moment, Instagram began populating feeds with the most noteworthy posts from those accounts, often reaching back days or even weeks to pull in particularly compelling content. In effect, the service began promoting a curated, unrealistic version of an already curated, unrealistic feed.

You often see images that claim to be showing you reality, yet arent. Photograph: Getty Images

Talya Stone, a parenting blogger at Motherhood: The Real Deal, went cool on Instagram shortly afterwards. For a long time, Instagram was one of the only places where the interaction felt real, she says. Then the algorithm came along and blew that out of the water. The whole point of these social platforms is that they are supposed to enhance social connectivity yet, bizarrely, they are based on an algorithm that seems to be working against this very notion.

Victoria Hui, who runs the lifestyle blog the Lust Listt, says there is another issue affecting pro Instagram users those who make a living (or hope to) from advertising and sponsorship. The new algorithm creates a popularity contest between creators, so that they resort to unethical business decisions in order to keep themselves at the top of the food chain.

Unscrupulous creators started buying followers, likes and comments in an attempt to fool the algorithm; as Instagram clamped down on that, Hui says, those users formed secret comment pods conspiring to share each and every post with each other in order to generate authentic and immediate engagement.

While influencers such as Dixon often get the lions share of the blame for the epidemic of unreality on Instagram, its just as prevalent at the grassroots as it is among the Insta-celebrities.

I stopped using the app earlier this year, when I realised that I reliably felt worse after opening it than I did before I started. But my Instagram a locked account, with just a couple of hundred followers and posts is almost exclusively for keeping in touch with people I got to know in other ways. The closest I get to following influencers is the pop star Carly Rae Jepsen and an Instagram-famous husky.

Still, every time I open the app, Im presented with an endless feed of my friends and family doing incredible things, having a wonderful time, without me.

Theres the friend whose wedding I wasnt invited to; I found out about it through the app. Theres the friend who is looking fantastic after every workout and lets us all know. And theres the friend who lives in New York, apparently over in London for the weekend without telling me.

Meanwhile, Im doing nothing of note except sitting on Instagram. At least I dont suffer the same from the adverts. Because of a glitch in my privacy settings, Instagram believes I am a Bangkok teenager and serves me nothing but adverts written in Thai for acne cures and KFC. This is not a joke.

When I tell friends about my dissatisfaction with the app, their responses are mixed. Some cite conventional wisdom, telling me to unfollow the influencers with a commercial imperative to sell me a perfect life and devote the app to keeping up with the friends I care about. Rob, for instance, follows fewer than 100 people, all family and friends.

But I dont follow any influencers, and the friends I care about most are the ones most likely to create that familiar pang of Fomo.

Every time I open the app, Im presented with an endless feed of my friends and family doing incredible things Photograph: Thomas Barwick/Getty Images

Others offer exactly the opposite advice, arguing that my problem is not following enough influencers. I should focus less on using Instagram to find out what people I care about are doing and more on using it as a source of information and inspiration. One friend, Lynsey, cites Present and Correct, which sells exquisitely designed office supplies, as her go-to happy place. Another, Marie, recommends her personal mix of roughly one-third friends, one-third MPs and one-third drag queens.

Its true that there is a whole world of information best communicated in a visual medium. While some fitness-focused Instagrams leave you feeling like a fat blob of plasticine, others are sources of useful advice, laser-targeted at people in your situation.

But Ive tried that version of Instagram, too, and I worry that it provides only a veneer of engagement, while forever hovering on the precipice of impossibly perfect breakfasts eaten by impossibly perfect people. Even Facebook, Instagrams owner, warns against using its products in this way. In general, the company wrote on its corporate blog last year, when people spend a lot of time passively consuming information reading but not interacting with people they report feeling worse afterward.

Of course, Facebooks answer was that everyone should post more. But it would say that, wouldnt it? Another option is to follow the guidance of the RSPH. As part of scroll-free September the charity is encouraging users to aim for anything between complete cold turkey and simply stopping at certain times, such as in the bedroom or during meals.

There is one final possibility, proposed by a few others when I shared my own Insta-woes: dont give up on Instagram, just give up on people.

There are enough dogs, cats, birds, otters and ferrets to fill a social network of their own from Jiro the otter to Gotcha the cockatoo and its very hard to scroll through pet Instagram and feel bad about yourself.

Though you may start wishing for a more photogenic labradoodle.

For more information and advice on issues with social media, go to the RSPH:

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11 Signs Youre The Victim of Narcissistic Abuse
Cataloged in Best-of Thought Catalog / Narcissism

11 Signs You’re The Victim of Narcissistic Abuse

Imagine this: your entire reality has been warped and distorted. You have been mercilessly violated, manipulated, lied to, ridiculed, demeaned and gaslighted into believing that you are imagining things.  The person you thought you knew and the life you built together have been shattered into a million little fragments.

Your sense of self has been eroded, diminished. You were idealized, devalued, then shoved off the pedestal. Perhaps you were even replaced and discarded multiple times, only to be ‘hoovered’ and lured back into an abuse cycle even more torturous than before. Maybe you were relentlessly stalked, harassed and bullied to stay with your abuser.

This was no normal break-up or relationship: this was a set-up for covert and insidious murder of your psyche and sense of safety in the world. Yet there may not be visible scars to tell the tale; all you have are broken pieces, fractured memories and internal battle wounds.

This is what narcissistic abuse looks like.

Psychological violence by malignant narcissists can include verbal and emotional abuse, toxic projection, stonewalling, sabotage, smear campaigns, triangulation along with a plethora of other forms of coercion and control. This is imposed by someone who lacks empathy, demonstrates an excessive sense of entitlement and engages in interpersonal exploitation to meet their own needs at the expense of the rights of others.

As a result of chronic abuse, victims may struggle with symptoms of PTSD or Complex PTSD if they had additional traumas like being abused by narcissistic parents or even what is known as “Narcissistic Abuse Syndrome” (Staggs, 2016; Stailk, 2017). The aftermath of narcissistic abuse can include depression, anxiety, hypervigilance, a pervasive sense of  toxic shame, emotional flashbacks that regress the victim back to the abusive incidents, and overwhelming feelings of helplessness and worthlessness.

When we are in the midst of an ongoing abuse cycle, it can be difficult to pinpoint exactly what we are experiencing because abusers are able to twist and turn reality to suit their own needs, engage in intense love-bombing after abusive incidents and convince their victims that they are the ones who are abusers.

If you find yourself experiencing the eleven symptoms below and you are or have been in a toxic relationship with a partner that disrespects, invalidates and mistreats you, you may just have been terrorized by an emotional predator:

1. You experience dissociation as a survival mechanism.

You feel emotionally or even physically detached from your environment, experiencing disruptions in your memory, perceptions, consciousness and sense of self. As Dr. Van der Kolk (2015) writes in his book, , “Dissociation is the essence of trauma. The overwhelming experience is split off and fragmented, so that the emotions, sounds, images, thoughts and physical sensations take on a life of their own.”

Dissociation can lead to emotional numbing in the face of horrific circumstances. Mind-numbing activities, obsessions, addictions and repression may become a way of life because they give you an escape from your current reality. Your brain finds ways to emotionally block out the impact of your pain so you do not have to deal with the full terror of your circumstances.

You may also develop traumatized ‘inner parts’ that become disjointed from the personality you inhabit with your abuser or loved ones (Johnston, 2017). These inner parts can include the inner child parts that were never nurtured, the true anger and disgust you feel towards your abuser or parts of yourselves you feel you cannot express around them.

According to therapist Rev. Sheri Heller (2015), “Integrating and reclaiming dissociated and disowned aspects of the personality is largely dependent on constructing a cohesive narrative, which allows for the assimilation of emotional, cognitive, and physiological realities.” This inner integration is best done with the help of a trauma-informed therapist.

2. You walk on eggshells.

A common symptom of trauma is avoiding anything that represents reliving the trauma – whether it be people, places or activities that pose that threat. Whether it be your friend, your partner, your family member, co-worker or boss, you find yourself constantly watching what you say or do around this person lest you incur their wrath, punishment or become the object of their envy.

However, you find that this does not work and you still become the abuser’s target whenever he or she feels entitled to use you as an emotional punching bag. You become perpetually anxious about ‘provoking’ your abuser in any way and may avoid confrontation or setting boundaries as a result.

You may also extend your people-pleasing behavior outside of the abusive relationship, losing your ability to be spontaneous or assertive while navigating the outside world, especially with people who resemble or are associated with your abuser and the abuse.

3. You put aside your basic needs and desires, sacrificing your emotional and even your physical safety to please the abuser.

You may have once been full of life, goal-driven and dream-oriented. Now you feel as if you are living just to fulfill the needs and agendas of another person. Once, the narcissist’s entire life seemed to revolve around you; now your entire life revolves around .

You may have placed your goals, hobbies, friendships and personal safety on the back burner just to ensure that your abuser feels ‘satisfied’ in the relationship. Of course, you soon realize that he or she will never truly be satisfied regardless of what you do or don’t do.

4. You are struggling with health issues and somatic symptoms that represent your psychological turmoil.

You may have gained or lost a significant amount of weight, developed serious health issues that did not exist prior and experienced physical symptoms of premature aging. The stress of chronic abuse has sent your cortisol levels into overdrive and your immune system has taken a severe hit, leaving you vulnerable to physical ailments and disease (Bergland, 2013).

You find yourself unable to sleep or experiencing terrifying nightmares when you do, reliving the trauma through emotional or visual flashbacks that bring you back to the site of the original wounds (Walker, 2013).

5. You develop a pervasive sense of mistrust.

Every person now represents a threat and you find yourself becoming anxious about the intentions of others, especially having experienced the malicious actions of someone you once trusted. Your usual caution becomes hypervigilance. Since the narcissistic abuser has worked hard to gaslight you into believing that your experiences are invalid, you have a hard time trusting anyone, including yourself.

6. You experience suicidal ideation or self-harming tendencies.

Along with depression and anxiety may come an increased sense of hopelessness. Your circumstances feel unbearable, as if you cannot escape, even if you wanted to. You develop a sense of learned helplessness that makes you feel as if you don’t wish to survive another day. You may even engage in self-harm as a way to cope.

As Dr. McKeon (2014), chief of the suicide prevention branch at SAMHSA notes, victims of intimate partner violence are twice as likely to attempt suicide multiple times. This is the way abusers essentially commit murder without a trace.

7. You self-isolate.

Many abusers isolate their victims, but victims also isolate themselves because they feel ashamed about the abuse they’re experiencing. Given the victim-blaming and misconceptions about emotional and psychological violence in society, victims may even be retraumatized by law enforcement, family members, friends and the harem members of the narcissist who might invalidate their perceptions of the abuse.

They fear no one will understand or believe them, so instead of reaching out for help, they decide to withdraw from others as a way to avoid judgment and retaliation from their abuser.

8. You find yourself comparing yourself to others, often to the extent of blaming yourself for the abuse.

A narcissistic abuser is highly skilled at manufacturing love triangles or bringing another person into the dynamic of the relationship to further terrorize the victim. As a result, victims of narcissistic abuse internalize the fear that they are not enough and may constantly strive to ‘compete’ for the abuser’s attention and approval.

Victims may also compare themselves to others in happier, healthier relationships or find themselves wondering why their abuser appears to treat complete strangers with more respect. This can send them down the trapdoor of wondering, “why me?” and stuck in an abyss of self-blame. The truth is, the abuser is the person who should be blamed – you are in no way responsible for being abused.

9. You self-sabotage and self-destruct.

Victims often find themselves ruminating over the abuse and hearing the abuser’s voice in their minds, amplifying their negative self-talk and tendency towards self-sabotage. Malignant narcissists ‘program’ and condition their victims to self-destruct – sometimes even to the point of driving them to suicide.

Due to the narcissist’s covert and overt put-downs, verbal abuse and hypercriticism, victims develop a tendency to punish themselves because they carry such toxic shame. They may sabotage their goals, dreams and academic pursuits. The abuser has instilled in them a sense of worthlessness and they begin to believe that they are undeserving of good things.

10. You fear doing what you love and achieving success.

Since many pathological predators are envious of their victims, they punish them for succeeding. This conditions their victims to associate their joys, interests, talents and areas of success with cruel and callous treatment. This conditioning gets their victims to fear success lest they be met with reprisal and reprimand.

As a result, victims become depressed, anxious, lack confidence and they may hide from the spotlight and allow their abusers to ‘steal’ the show again and again. Realize that your abuser is not undercutting your gifts because they truly believe you are inferior; it is because those gifts threaten their control over you.

11. You protect your abuser and even ‘gaslight’ yourself.

Rationalizing, minimizing and denying the abuse are often survival mechanisms for victims in an abusive relationship. In order to reduce the cognitive dissonance that erupts when the person who claims to love you mistreats you, victims of abuse convince themselves that the abuser is really not ‘all that bad’ or that they must have done something to ‘provoke’ the abuse.

It is important to reduce this cognitive dissonance by reading up on the narcissistic personality and abuse tactics; this way, you are able to reconcile your current reality with the narcissist’s false self by recognizing that the abusive personality, not the charming facade, is their true self.

Remember that an intense trauma bond is often formed between victim and abuser because the victim is ‘trained’ to rely on the abuser for his or her survival (Carnes, 2015). Victims may protect their abusers from legal consequences, portray a happy image of the relationship on social media or overcompensate by ‘sharing the blame’ of the abuse.

I’ve been narcissistically abused. Now what?

If you are currently in an abusive relationship of any kind, know that you are not alone even if you feel like you are. There are millions of survivors all over the world who have experienced what you have.  This form of psychological torment is not exclusive to any gender, culture, social class or religion. The first step is becoming aware of the reality of your situation and validating it – even if your abuser attempts to gaslight you into believing otherwise.

If you can, journal about the experiences you have been going through to begin acknowledging the realities of the abuse. Share the truth with a trusted mental health professional, domestic violence advocates, family members, friends or fellow survivors. Begin to ‘heal’ your body through modalities like trauma-focused yoga and mindfulness meditation, two practices that target the same parts of the brain often affected by trauma (van der Kolk, 2015).

Reach out for help if you are experiencing any of these symptoms, especially suicidal ideation. Consult a trauma-informed counselor who understands and can help guide you through the symptoms of trauma. Make a safety plan if you have concerns about your abuser getting violent.

It is not easy to leave an abusive relationship due to the intense trauma bonds that can develop, the effects of trauma and the pervasive sense of helplessness and hopelessness that can form as a result of the abuse. Yet you have to know that it is in fact possible to leave and to begin the journey to No Contact or Low Contact in the cases of co-parenting. Recovery from this form of abuse is challenging, but it is well worth paving the path back to freedom and putting the pieces back together.

Works Cited
Bergland, C. (2013, January 22). Cortisol: Why “The Stress Hormone” is public enemy no. 1. Retrieved August 21, 2017.
Clay, R. A. (2014). Suicide and intimate partner violence.  (10), 30. Retrieved here.
Carnes, P. (2015). . Health Communications, Incorporated.
Heller, S. (2015, February 18). Complex PTSD and the realm of dissociation. Retrieved August 21, 2017.
Johnston, M. (2017, April 05). Working with our inner parts. Retrieved August 21, 2017.
Staggs, S. (2016). Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. . Retrieved on August 21, 2017.
Staggs, S. (2016). Symptoms & Diagnosis of PTSD. . Retrieved on August 21, 2017.
Staik, A. (2017). Narcissistic Abuse and the Symptoms of Narcissistic Abuse Syndrome. . Retrieved on March 26, 2018.
Van der Kolk, B. (2015). . London: Penguin Books.
Walker, P. (2013). . Lafayette, CA: Azure Coyote.

This article originally appeared on Psych Central as 11 Signs You’re the Victim of Narcissistic Abuse.

Shahida Arabi

Shahida is the author of and the poetry book . She is a staff writer at Thought Catalog.

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