When A Digital Detox Isn’t Enough: 5 Things I Learned When I Gave Up Instagram

I was an Instagram addict.

It started off innocently enough. In 2015, a friend in the budding “influencer” space suggested I make an account for my blog. Before I knew it, I had integrated the platform into my blogging business plan, started taking on sponsorships, worked to grow my following, and committed myself to posting a minimum of once per day.

I kept this up for almost three years, contemplating quitting at least once a year during that time as I could feel myself agitating under its watchful eye.

I had an Instagram-related nervous breakdown in 2017.

I tried to quit again in January of last year.

Finally, after enduring months of grief and trauma in my family life and continuing to deny PTSD symptoms that had been triggered by the events in Charlottesville in August 2017, I had five days of panic attacks brought on by Instagram. I came to work hyperventilating/weeping that Thursday morning and my volunteer sat me down and yelled at me.

“Enough is enough! Delete it now!”

I did it. And I wouldn’t say I never looked back, but overall I feel that I made the right choice. Here’s what I’ve learned about myself since I quit Instagram…

5 Things I Learned When I Gave Up Instagram

1. I don’t, and shouldn’t have to, get dressed for others. 

Before I finally parted ways with Instagram (just last month), I still believed that my personal style would suffer without the “accountability” of posting daily outfits. That couldn’t have been further from the truth.

Not subjecting myself to outfit surveillance has actually given me a better sense of what I like and what suits me.

I get dressed for myself, and if someone in my day-to-day life likes my outfit, that’s a nice perk, but it’s no longer essential.

2. My life is not improved by “likes.”

I thought that receiving positive engagement from Instagram was improving my sense of self worth, but it turns out it was just exacerbating anxiety and distracting me from feeling truly grateful for what I have.

Before, I would post on Instagram then obsessively open the app dozens of times per day to check for likes and comments. This made me really inefficient at work and play, and in some ways pushed me to the margins of the experiences and relationships I already had right in front of me.

I was always looking for more gratification, mostly from strangers, instead of seeking to better myself in more substantial ways.

3. We differentiate internet versus “real life” for a reason.

I often juxtapose internet interaction against “real life” – meaning embodied, tangible life – and people respond, “the internet is real life.” They’re not exactly wrong, but I’ve noticed that the way I feel and react is very different in each context.

While I’ve made several authentic friends through the internet, nothing beats going out for drinks with local friends, anticipating the collective breath as a member of a choir, going for a walk on a windy day, or grazing your hands against clothing in a store. There is something primally essential about valuing the bodies we occupy and moving through physical space.

I had begun to see my “real life” and my internet life as equals, but it’s clear that my physical world offers more value.

4. My writing and creativity are best cultivated outside of social media.

I used to draw all the time, but when I finally picked up a stylus and started doodling again in January, it had been years since I’d last done it.

I grew up crafting: jewelry making, oil painting, collage, even songwriting. But I had dedicated all that creative energy to cultivating the perfect Instagram feed, with nothing of value to show for it in the end. Similarly, I had begun writing as a kind of reaction to the influencer niche, or to what I was seeing on social media, instead of pushing for more complexity and innovation in my subjects.

Now I see that creativity comes first through impressions in quiet moments and in long form conversations with people I admire, not through the cacophony of social media.

5. Social media is a serious addiction, with serious consequences.

The weirdest discovery after leaving Instagram, and this started even after I quit my public account and kept my personal one for a few months, is that it feels like a thick fog has lifted from my brain’s cognitive functions.

I have more clarity of purpose and insight. And I’m less reactive overall. Instagram cultivates a perfect storm of self comparison, algorithm-manipulated dopamine rushes, hyper-speed pacing, and group think that pushes us – all of us – to the limits of what our brains can handle. But because we’re addicted, we keep legitimizing the platform and making excuses for why we’re still there.

If you feel like you “have no choice” but to stay on Instagram, you might have a legitimate addiction. Have a friend ask you some questions and see if they can help you let it go.

Admittedly, my experience may be a bit extreme. People who use Instagram primarily for its original intended purpose of documenting life spontaneously for the benefit of their friends may have a mostly positive relationship with the platform. But I know that for every person who finds it beneficial, there are likely dozens who find it harmful in some way.

It might be time to say goodbye to Instagram. If not forever, then maybe for Lent? Lent is a season of fasting practiced in many Christian traditions. It begins this Wednesday and lasts until Thursday, April 18th. During that time of “giving something up,” we are encouraged to re-focus our attention and intentions on practices that bring us closer to God, truth, and wisdom. If you want to take on this practice, let me know and I can discuss it with you!

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