Every Wednesday at 1 p.m., my phone suggests I make some weekend plans. And every time, I feel sheepish, like a kid who can’t manage to tidy her room without being told. I wish I could turn this reminder off, but it works too well. My social intuition is so shitty I need a push notification to remind me I enjoy seeing people.
The institutionalizing of my social life was probably a long time coming. I set the reminder because the lose-lose purgatory of both desiring and dreading social plans has become something of an emotional resting state for me — one I’ve spent most of my twenties trying to decode. Unfortunately, after penning several thousands of words on the topic, the only veritable conclusion I’ve drawn I could have done in 15: I like to socialize less than a butterfly, but more than I think I do. After enough time, a simple truth like that becomes more important than its murky impetus.
The antisocial butterfly narrative is tired by now. The “charming” idiosyncrasies of introversion have been covered by the internet to such an extent that the taboo that once made them interesting has been all but unraveled. I’m no longer sure that I’m an introvert or even believe in the binary. That I actually enjoy socializing, however, is something I’ve been focusing on more recently, hence the push notification. I’ve whined about plans that I consequently enjoyed too many times to put up with my own shit anymore.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, outsmarting myself has worked far better than my previous strategies. Since the notification, I’ve become reliable at making and keeping plans and have had markedly fewer Sundays that have me questioning my viability as a friend. But confusingly, I still feel vulnerable to the tides of social insecurity. I still occasionally feel like I’m not doing enough, all evidence to the contrary. Even more confusingly, I see this sentiment echoed in nearly everyone around me, the vitality of their social lives notwithstanding. It has me wondering if feelings of social ineptitude aren’t as much a personality quirk (or the result of some behavioral flaw) as they are part and parcel of living in our modern age.
It feels prosaic at this point to blame social media, but it’s hard not to bring it up in this conversation. It’s enabled us to create an unbelievable amalgamous character out of “everyone else,” against which we constantly measure ourselves to disastrous results. Of course our one life could never compare to the highlight reel of a million others. And so we lose the game over and over, and worse, forget we’re even playing it. In the end, I guess we just blame ourselves.
According to social comparison theory, we have a biological imperative to contextualize ourselves within society — to compare ourselves against the elite as a means of self-evaluation. But taken too far, it breeds unnecessary competition and generally shitty feelings. (None of us need a scientific study to know this is true.) Today, the tools we use to compare ourselves have become so sophisticated, and yet simultaneously misleading, that feeling okay about ourselves requires a herculean effort. Our comparative instinct is so overstimulated that we need dedicated books and affirmations and meditations and time away from our phones just to keep our positive self-evaluations intact for more than a day. No wonder we’re so tired.
This is all symptomatic of a larger issue whereby nothing we have or do is really enough. In matters of wellness, fashion, beauty, popularity, moral goodness…our data set is so large, and the bar consequently so high across the board, that the only reasonable conclusion is to believe ourselves in constant need of improvement. This is a key component of capitalism, and this is why my social life, even one I’ve cultivated after understanding what I want and need and dutifully pursuing that, still finds itself on the comparative chopping block over and over.
I’m beginning to think that no matter how well we know ourselves and work to arrange our lives around the answer, the idea that we’re still not enough will tap us on the shoulder. If you’re on the internet or engage with media at all, that tap is all but guaranteed. Perhaps the trick is not learning to ignore it, as so many self-esteem mantras would have us do, but learning how to parse the difference between a tap that’s helpful information and one that’s simply proof that we live in the modern society — a massive comparative complex set up to remind us that other people are better than us, whether we asked it to or not. Maybe once we accept insecurity as a necessary function of the internet, we can finally stop blaming ourselves for feeling it.
Does this feel true for you? Does insecurity constantly sneak up on you uninvited? Does the house always win, or is that changing?
Photograph by Madeline Montoya.