Two years ago, I quit my real estate career, sold my house and got rid of 90 percent of my belongings so I could travel the world full time. I decided to sacrifice my comfort and knowledge of the familiar so I could become a travel writer and experience what I imagined would be a life of adventure and exploration. Since then, my husband and I have visited Europe, South America, Asia and the Middle East, documenting every step of our journey.
Until I became obsessed with Instagram and it ruined my life.
My obsession with the photo-sharing platform altered the way I saw the world ― and not for the better. It changed the way I traveled and began to change my life in ways I didn’t want.
I originally started featuring my travels on Instagram as a way of documenting my journey. It was better than a travel journal because it was visual and because engagement with other people was built in. It made my adventures more interactive, and I got feedback and tips about the places I was visiting. Plus it was a great way to stay in contact with my friends and family at home. It was mostly fun and games for the first year, then the platform slowly but increasingly became a way for me to critique and judge myself.
The trouble began when I realized just how many travel “influencers” there were and that each was constantly posting incredible shots that racked up thousands of likes. When I compared their posts ― and the reactions they received ― to mine, my self-confidence plummeted. Why didn’t my feed look as fabulous as theirs? I worried.
Determined to up my game, I retooled everything from my travel schedules to my daily routines to my shot strategies in hopes of nabbing more likes and followers. I started to think about the destinations in terms of how Instagram-able they were, instead of how interested I was in visiting them. Once I was actually exploring a new place, I would spend more time filming Instagram Stories and taking shots for my feed than I would taking in the city or the moment.
Between planning my next shot, picking the outfit I’d wear, getting ready, doing my makeup, staging, taking and editing dozens and dozens of photos, writing the perfect caption, researching hashtags to use, planning the best time to post, and then responding to the comments I received, it literally took me hours to create a single Instagram post.
I first realized my obsession with Instagram had ventured into unhealthy territory when I was staging a shot of breakfast in bed at a hotel in Bali. Most people wake up and order room service with sleep still in their eyes, bed head and a makeup-free face. That is the whole point (and luxury) of getting breakfast in bed ― you don’t actually have to get out of bed or make yourself presentable to the world. Not for me. I had to shower, put on a full face of makeup, curl my hair and then mess it up a bit so it looked more “natural,” fluff the blankets and the pillows and set up my tripod. After ordering way more food than I could possibly eat, I painfully posed hundreds of different unnatural ways to achieve the ultimate “breakfast goals” shot. One hour and 400 photos later, the food was stale, the coffee was cold and I was feeling anything but relaxed.
Between planning shots and pointlessly scrolling the feed, I was spending approximately five hours a day on Instagram. That is 35 hours a week, 150 hours a month, 1,825 hours a year. Instagram quickly became my biggest commitment, yet provided me with the least rewards. My account hardly grew, even though I was putting a full-time job’s worth of effort into it.
Taking cool photos stopped being a hobby and something I genuinely enjoyed, and quickly became an obsessive, all-consuming chore.
I was sacrificing making my own memories to create content for a platform ― and, in many cases, followers ― that didn’t care about me. But I was petrified that if I didn’t play the Instagram game and I didn’t “up” my level of visual content, I would be left behind. I’d be a nobody.
Even worse, the more I studied what other influencers were doing, the more it stomped out my own creativity. I became envious and depressed when comparing my feed to others. I knew better, but I couldn’t help but be sucked into the comparison vortex. Why were they able to get that dream shot with no people in the background? I asked myself. How does she always look so flawless while traveling? Why don’t I have as many followers? As many likes? More brands that want to work with me?
“Instead of venturing out to explore the new cities I was in, I would shut myself in a hotel room and do nothing. I’d sit on the bed for hours, convinced my pictures weren’t ― and never would be ― good enough, so why go out and even try?”
I convinced myself I just needed a few more likes, a few more follows and a few more comments before I could be as successful as the other influencers I’d been inspired by. So, instead of backing away from Instagram, I vowed to work even harder.
I got my hair done and bought a new bathing suit. With a few props in tow, I traveled back to Bali to stay at a popular bucket-list hotel and attempt to get the ultimate tropical waterfall shot. Instead of enjoying the luxurious resort with its unreal infinity pool and world-class spa, I dedicated my entire day to getting a picture that would truly wow on Instagram. After reviewing photos and video taken over six hours, I felt completely disheartened. None of them were as good as those of other girls I had seen in my feed. I felt too fat, too blemished, too plain. I scrapped the entire project and retreated into a dark hole.
Soon, I not only started posting less but I became virtually paralyzed by my Instagram anxiety. Instead of venturing out to explore the new cities I was in, I would shut myself in a hotel room and do nothing. I’d sit on the bed for hours, convinced my pictures weren’t ― and never would be ― good enough, so why go out and even try? I even put off plans because I didn’t feel pretty enough, didn’t have the right outfit, or told myself I couldn’t get a worthy Instagram post out of the experience.
I was constantly battling myself and my obsession with “likes” ― and the validation from my peers they represented ― was making me sick.
I realized I had forgotten what I was doing all of this for. I sold my house and all of my things to travel. Period. I didn’t do it for attention, fame or fortune, and I definitely didn’t do it to kill myself trying to master or outsmart social media algorithms.
I put so much time and effort into my Instagramming. In return, it was robbing me of my time, my confidence and my joy.
I was addicted to Instagram and got a hit of dopamine when I received a new notification. After so many wasted months, I finally knew I had to do something. I was done putting my time and energy into ― and risking my mental health for ― something as trivial as a feed full of photos.
So, I asked myself, “How would you travel if Instagram didn’t exist?” I would actually learn, see and do so much more.
If Instagram suddenly disappeared and I wasn’t so caught up with getting the perfect shots, angles and video clips, I could live in the moment. To be honest, I haven’t felt what it’s like to do that in a very long time. Even when I think I am, I catch myself wondering how much time I have to grab my phone before whatever amazing thing I’m experiencing is over.
What’s more, I’ve gotten to the point where I’m nauseated by how fake everything I see on social media is. The very same people who claim they want to be “more authentic” are the same people who are posting (supposedly) candid photos that, in reality, feature shots that have been aggressively staged and took hours, if not days, to perfect. Some influencers have even gone so far as to book sessions at apartments designed specifically to serve as a stylish backdrop for their (absolutely not) carefree, nonchalant photos. Nothing about that is authentic.
“Girls who are smiling beside platters of stale, uneaten breakfast items are not enjoying a meal. I should know. I was one of them.”
Girls who are smiling beside platters of stale, uneaten breakfast items are not enjoying a meal. I should know. I was one of them.
Couples who pose for hours in crowded tourist locations to get a perfect Insta shot are not having the time of their lives. They are sweating, stressed, tired and completely blind to the very thing they are trying to get a picture of. I should know. I’ve been there.
These photos make us crave a life that simply doesn’t even exist. And then, when we can’t achieve it, we feel badly about ourselves. It’s sick, and it’s gone way too far.
So, going forward, I’m making a deal with myself when it comes to Instagram.
If I can grab a great shot during an activity I am already doing, in an outfit I am already wearing, in a location I am already going... awesome. I will snap a few photos and make a post. If the shot doesn’t work out, at least I have a memory and a blurry candid photo to document it. When I look back on my past adventures now, it’s the real, unstaged photos and seemingly pointless selfies that make my heart sing anyway ― not the curated, overedited, completely inauthentic shots.
I haven’t posted anything on Instagram in over a month but I think I’m ready to give it a go again ― while following my new plan. I just don’t care if my overhauled posting strategy gets me fewer likes and I can’t keep up with those other Instagrammers. I’ve finally realized what matters is where I am, who I’m with, and what I can see or learn while we’re there together. I don’t know what’s ahead of me ― where I’ll be six weeks or six months from now ― but I’m sure my soul will be happier spending more time on traveling and living than Instagramming.
Kashlee Kucheran sold her house and 90 percent of her belongings to live out of a suitcase and travel the world. She is the co-founder of the popular travel lifestyle blog TravelOffPath.com and the author of The High Maintenance Minimalist.