In a world filled with voices clamoring for our attention on social media, it’s easy to get swept away by the charisma of people we’ve never met, yet somehow feel like we know them better than some of our friends.
Our idols, mentors and favorite influencers talk to us on a daily basis. Through reels and videos that make our minds feel like they’re right there with us.
And if these people do a good a job (because yes, it is their job 😉 ) at making us believe that they hold the key to unlocking our own potential, our ears perk up, eagerly waiting for their guidance and inspiration.
Which of course, can be a great thing. Even by writing this humble sized blog, I’ve witnessed many people completely transform their lives after reading something I wrote. So I can’t even imagine the scope of the impact one celebrity with a positive mindset can make through their Instagram feed.
But what if I told you that your idol, the person who has inspired you so much, might be the wrong person to follow?
The initial reaction almost everybody would have to that question is “Nah, not the case with mine! I’m good at reading people. And I’ve already seen results from following their advice!”
But consider this possibility for a moment:
What if one of the people you look to for inspiration, intentionally or not, is leading you down a path which feels good right now, but ultimately makes you miserable?
And what if in spite of your good people skills, they somehow still managed to mislead you?
Wouldn’t you want to know?
And if that turned out to be the case. Know that that’s nothing to feel bad about. It is easy for all of us to be drawn in by someone’s impressive credentials, charismatic personality, or seemingly perfect life.
But just because someone has a large following or is considered an expert in their field doesn’t necessarily mean that they know how to make you happy, that they value the same things as you…or even that they have your best interest in mind.
We need to be more discerning in who we choose to follow, listen to or model our lives and personalities after.
So let’s pause for a moment, peel back the layers of our admiration and reevaluate the role models we’ve placed on pedestals. We’ll do so by applying five filters that’ll help you make better choices in this area.
Filter 1: It’s the Eyes Chico, They Never Lie
Take 1 person on social media who you love to listen to, or consider a good role model. What is it about them that attracted you?
Most often, the answers will be one of the following:
- They have an epic life
- They’re smart/wise/knowledgeable
- They seem to know what they’re speaking about
- They’re successful in something you want to learn
- They have an opinion which appeals to you
- They embody personality traits which you find are lacking in the world
- …(insert your own reasons)
Now notice how none of the things on this list are things you actually know for certain.
In fact, if you look back at that list in full honesty, you should insert the word “seem” after every instance of the word “they”. After all, you haven’t met this person in the flesh yet.
It’s easy to create a shining façade on social media. But often, it’s used to conceal a flawed foundation. So I invite you to look past the show for a moment and try to peer into the person themselves.
Forget everything you think you know about this person. Even their name. Imagine they are a random stranger crossing you on the street. And watch a few videos of them with no audio and no subtitles.
While you watch them, do nothing but look in their eyes the whole time.
How do they seem to feel?
Do they look happy? Do they look radiant and full of positive energy?
Or do they look tired ? Troubled? Frustrated? Perhaps even empty or fake?
A lot of people know how to use their body language and facial expressions to appear a certain way. And a lot of influencers actually took training on this. But very few people can mask the deeper truth in their own eyes.
Now re-watch the same video and shift your attention to how you feel while watching it without sound.
When looking in this person’s eyes, do you feel warm? Safe? Inspired? Or do you feel a sense of darkness and unease?
If you did not know this person or their message, and the only thing you saw was their eyes… Would you want to trade places with them?
What if there there was no success, no money, no sex to be gained from following them…but the only thing you would gain was feeling exactly the way they appear to you right now. Would you still choose them as your wise mentor?
Take note of your observations.
Now remind yourself that by sharing their mindset, this person is handing you the roadmap to becoming that way. They are showing you (provided they are telling the truth) how to think like them. How to act like them. How to feel the way they feel.
Even if their success is real, the reason you want to emulate that success is most likely because you believe it will make you feel great.
It can be challenging to accept the fact that this person whom you’ve come to like so much is not right for you.
But if you do not want to feel the way this person appeared to you while doing this exercise, abort the mission. Unfollow them on every platform, and ignore the advice you’ve previously taken from them. Deep down, you do not want to end up where they are, so better stop yourself from walking in that direction 😉
If on the other hand looking in their eyes felt like a true inspiration, then great! Then let’s go to the next filter.
Filter 2: Credibility on the Topic
Let’s say you wanted to learn how to play the piano.
How would you pick your teacher? You’d look at their own playing and at the playing of their students. Then you’d pick the teacher who had proven to be the most adept at the skill.
However, when the things someone is teaching look shiny and successful, we often satisfy ourselves with a shallow impression of this, instead of actual proof. Because we want to believe that we can get the results they promise.
The question you must ask yourself is simple yet crucial: How can you verify that this person is truly proficient in what they claim to teach?
Are you merely staring at pictures and videos showcasing their supposed “results”? Or have you witnessed them actually perform the skill in action, leading to the results?
It’s essential to make this distinction. Some examples:
1. You might encounter someone who appears incredibly fit. They promise that by following their advice, you’ll achieve the same physique. But being fit is not proof of their skill. It could mean anything. It could be the result of performance enhancing substances, for all we know. Have you seen actual evidence someone you know taking their advice and getting the same results? If not, suspend your judgment. You can still experiment with what they preach and become that first person who is “proof” of it. But practice caution with following them until that proof is there.
2. Someone may be sharing info on how to get rich from your laptop while traveling the world. Or how to become a crypto millionaire so that you’ll never have to work a day in your life. And you can indeed see them living what appears to be a rich, successful life, full of relaxation. But have you seen proof of the process that got them there? What if their true way of making money is simply to sell a bunch of bullshit to followers like you? This is actually the more likely scenario. If they never have to work a day in their life, why would they work so hard on maintaining that following and selling their stuff to you?
3. When someone offers business advice, it’s crucial to examine their track record. Which businesses have they grown… can you verify their previous success? Or is their business simply getting you to follow them? While I don’t personally follow him, Gary Vee serves as an excellent example of someone with the experience and achievements to substantiate their advice.
Notice that there are amusing exceptions to this rule: If someone promises to teach you genius marketing skills and the only thing they successfully market is their own marketing course, the fact that they convinced you to purchase it is actual evidence of their expertise.
Filter 3: Which Needs Are They Promising to Fulfil?
Now it’s time to turn the mirror on ourselves and confront some uncomfortable truths.
Why do we need to follow influencers in the first place?
If you look beyond the superficial layer of what they offer, what deep hole inside of you do you want this person to fill? (No, that’s not what I meant.)
What is the emotional need that is driving you to watch their content?
Make no mistake. There’s always a need underneath. We don’t invest time and energy in things that are meaningless to us. Otherwise we’d watch every single video on our news feed.
If you don’t know what that need is (and unless we’ve deeply investigated it, most of us don’t), you will remain vulnerable to sales people, scam artists and scary cult leaders manipulating you into thinking what you really need is the thing they are offering.
So let’s dig inside our souls, shall we?
- Find a quiet and comfortable space where you can focus on your thoughts without distractions and take out a journal (or create a new document on your computer).
- Begin by describing a person you follow. Note any specific details, visuals, or messages that stood out to you about them.
- Reflect on your emotional response when first encountering this person or their message. What feelings did it evoke? Write down any that come to mind, such as excitement, curiosity, insecurity, or fear of missing out, or anger about the world.
- Explore the trigger. Ask yourself why this particular message influenced your desire to follow this person. Is there a specific feature, benefit, or promise that appeals to you? Jot down your thoughts and insights.
- Dig deeper. Consider the underlying psychological needs that may be driving your desire. Are you seeking pleasure, status, or validation? Are you longing for a sense of belonging, growth, or significance? Are you longing for safety (as when wanting to be powerful or protected)? Reflect on your core emotional needs and try to identify which ones feel relevant. If you find this part hard to do, you can imagine that what you wrote down is being told to you by a friend, and that you are analysing your friend’s needs. Or you may find somebody to guide you through the process.
- Do this a few times over for different people you follow. Now look for any patterns or recurring themes in what triggered you to follow them. Are there certain needs that consistently arise when you encounter a role model or media channel similar to this one? Write down any commonalities you notice.
- Reflect on personal experiences. Consider any past events or experiences that may have influenced your emotional responses and needs. Are there any unresolved issues or unmet needs from your past that could be influencing your reactions? Note down any connections you can make. (If you have a therapist, this is a great thing to do together.)
- Write a brief summary of the psychological needs you believe are being triggered by the content you consume, and the desire to buy or believe something. This summary will help you gain clarity on which of your needs leave you vulnerable to emotional manipulation in marketing and looking past red flags when following somebody.
If it is your first time exploring such things, it may not always feel fun to admit it to yourself. But as long as these needs are unconscious, you can and will be manipulated. People literally build their careers on exploiting such needs inside you.
So think of it this way: The more of these secret psychological needs you discover in yourself, the more personal power and freedom you experience in life. What could be more exciting? 😉
Now that you know about your needs, it’s worth paying attention to the 2 main ways people will exploit that need:
Option 1: Extracting Your Money
This is most noticeable in fear-based marketing.
For example, let’s say you care about being healthy. Because deep down you long to feel safe and nourished, something you needed to feel from your parents as a baby more than they gave you.
You already know that there’s a lot of processed foods in the supermarket which contains added ingredients that are not good for you. And you avoid these. You also take some supplements to improve your health.
An influencer exploiting your need could tell you:
“Did you know that the health supplements you are taking are actually BAD for you?
In fact, here are 10 convincing facts which will show you just how scarily unhealthy they are….
You think you’ve been healthy. But no, you’ve been paying for stuff that is actively KILLING your body.”
This of course, gets you hooked. You thought you were safe and nourished. But NO. You’ve been deceived… Inside, for a moment, you feel the same way as you did when you were young. If only there was a person who could tell you how to feel safe and nourished again… “Oh wait. Maybe this guy has the answer? After all… He’s the one that exposed the lies of the evil people that made me feel this way…”
After which they tell you:
“Unfortunately, no. There really aren’t any brands in the world which makes healthy supplements. Just like with food, everything’s fucked. You are a victim of a corporate scheme that wants to keep you unhealthy.“
Jesus! What do we do now? We feel even worse! Big cliffhanger. If only we could good again…
Enter the influencer’s final knock-out message:
“…so that’s why I’ve decided to make my own brand of supplements which don’t include these horrific ingredients. The formula is a big secret nobody else has access to. But because I have years of experience and am such a smart and inspirational guy (remember, I exposed to you the lies of other people through my use of science(TM) and statistics(TM)), I do have this secret. Unlike other people, I love you and care about you and your health. So for only $50 more per month than the supplement you are currently taking, you can buy my stuff. And it will make you feel safe and nourished again. More than your mom and dad ever did.
So what do you choose? Sending me your money? Or feeling scared forever because no one else has this super secret method/patented ingredient/nano-micro-crystal-technology? Decide now, or tomorrow it’s sold out and the price doubles.”
Take our money!!! Please!!!
I’m using the fitness industry as an example here because it is very mainstream. But this pattern plays out with just about every product or service in any industry you can imagine.
In fact, I used it in this article. I could have given the article a much better title, like “How to Decide Whose Advice to Follow” or “Five Filters to Help You Choose the Right Influencer”. But the truth is, very few people would end up reading that article. So I wrote a title exploiting people’s need for trustworthy leadership outside themselves, which is related to a need for safety and a fear of making the wrong decisions. I conveniently added the word “danger” in there to appeal to that fear as well.
I did so specifically:
- Because I want this article to trigger people who are prone to looking for advice or inspiration online.
- Because those are the exact people who can fell prey to manipulative influencers, and I want to give them the tools to protect themselves from it.
- Because I would like to illustrate my point by revealing it
Consider this: If you are someone who clicked on this article because of a title which I wrote specifically to manipulate you into reading it (albeit with your best intentions in mind)…and you didn’t catch me doing it until now…then who else may have been doing it to you all this time?
Option 2: Indoctrinating You
Many influencers don’t sell anything. They may make content just to build their brand, or they may get paid by the platform they share their message on. But they are not out to take your money. All they’re doing is sharing their opinions with you.
They may mean well. But the line between an opinion, a life philosophy and an ideology can be thin. And oftentimes they contaminate each other. Let’s take 2 examples:
- Person A chooses to live a vegan lifestyle. This is a life philosophy. They decide to live their life without causing harm to any animals. They now create content which inspires people to love animals more, and to align their actions with that love by consuming less animal products. But the moment they start to believe other people should have the same philosophy as them, or that the people who eat meat are morally inferior to them, it becomes an ideology.
- Person B believes in “traditional family values” and “traditional gender roles”. They grew up in a family where for generations, the woman was in the kitchen and the man was the provider. They witnessed first-hand the beautiful harmony that it created for them and their family members. So they create content that promotes the idea that traditional gender roles can be something beautiful and don’t have to be seen as “toxic masculine patriarchy”. They illustrate how it is not always repressive, and it can be an enriching, liberating experience for all involved. They paint beautiful pictures of what they see as a simpler time, which they yearn to return to. However, once they start to believe that the current state of society is degenerate for no longer embodying these values, that women belong in the kitchen or that men who help out around the house and “allow” their wives to have a jobs are weak. That’s when it becomes an ideology.
In both cases, the life philosophy is just an expression of their personal values towards the world. It can be inspiring to anyone who resonates with that. It only becomes problematic once the line gets crossed into ideology. Because the ideology makes you to want to control other people’s behavior. And in extreme cases, this can lead to violence or war.
The problem is that ideologies will indoctrinate you by posing as a life philosophy.
First, they will find your unmet need and make it clear how adopting this life philosophy can fulfil that need.
Then they will illustrate why this philosophy is more honest, more effective or more virtuous, more natural or more “right” than whatever alternatives exist. This will convince you of following them.
And only once you’ve fully adopted it as the truth about life, the ideological aspect kicks in.
As opposed to fear-based marketing, ideologies will usually address your needs indirectly. This makes them more insidious, because they can slip under the radar.
For example, both person A (veganism) and person B (traditional gender roles) may believe that their life philosophy is one they simply adopted for moral reasons. But let’s look at some of the needs which those ideologies can meet for them.
Veganism as an ideology:
- Sense of purpose and meaning
- Sense of health
- Social connection and belonging
- Personal growth and challenge
- Being a “good boy/good girl”
- Autonomy and empowerment
- Standing up against authority figures/setting boundaries
- Environmental concerns (need for safety, security or even a hero complex).
Traditional gender roles as an ideology for men:
- Feeling nourished
- Clarity of purpose
- Sense of security (”My wife will always be there / never leave me.”)
- Sense of structure
- Sense of relief/relaxation (”When I come home from work, the tasks finally over.”)
- Sense of ease and certainty (We have a system that works instead of having to figure everything out ourselves.)
- Feeling valued (”If women are allowed to work…what value do I bring to the table? What makes me a real man?” Which also has to do with fear of abandonment or low self-esteem.)
Note that once you subscribe to the ideology, it doesn’t matter anymore whether these needs are actually met or not. What matters is that you feel like they are met. And when you feel they are met, you no longer perceive the “hole” this need left in your heart. Which feels much better. So of course, you’ll prevent yourself from having that hole opened up again.
So for example if for you, veganism triggered your need to feel healthy, this will happen:
When someone presents you with the fact that veganism is not always healthy and that eating meat can be very healthy, you will refute it. Because what you need is to feel like you are healthy. And your current ideology is fulfilling that need. So why go “unfulfil” it with annoying evidence?
The same is true for anybody who refuses to look at any arguments pro-veganism by the way. Veganism is not the scapegoat of the story. I am just using the example because of my own experience adopting it as a life philosophy.
The point is: When an ideology has you hooked because it fulfils one of your secret needs, it can be really hard to unhook yourself. People can present you with all the evidence that you have some shabby beliefs, and you’ll only see it as extra proof that they’re all wrong.
Therefore, it’s important that you catch it early when you are getting indoctrinated into an ideology.
The problem with trying to catch it?
When you’re following an influencer, you can not always spot whether someone’s advice comes from a life philosophy or an ideology. Neither can you see how that particular belief system is serving them. Does it fulfil one of their needs? Does it do so in a healthy way? We don’t know.
Ideologies also have built-in systems and memes to indoctrinate you. So a person speaking to you in a video can indoctrinate you even without knowing it, or without knowing they themselves are indoctrinated.
That is why it is absolutely crucial to become aware which of your needs are likely to get triggered by things you see on social media. And to recognise when they are triggered.
Have you just found a new channel or person that is making you extremely excited about binge-watching all their stuff?
Interrupt yourself. And before you go down this rabbit hole, do the journal exercise from earlier in this article. It can save you a lot of years walking around with a brainwashed…ehm….brain.
Filter 4: Separate the Message from the Messenger
When somebody did pass all your filters, it’s time to make an important distinction:
When we read, watch or heard something that inspired and motivated us, we have a tendency to look at the person sharing those words as the one that made it happen. But that is incorrect. What actually inspired us was the message, not the messenger.
Just because a person is giving you solid, inspirational advice, doesn’t mean you need to follow everything they do or say. It’s not because my advice on not knowing what to say in groups has helped you, that you suddenly need to stop sleeping at night or talk your boyfriend into an open relationship. They are different topics that have nothing to do with each other. And they should be judged separately. No matter how many of my blog posts have inspired you, my next one could be one that isn’t helpful to you.
Remember, the influencers we follow are also people just like us.
So even if they themselves passed all our filters, they could still get manipulated by others or indoctrinated into an ideology. And as a result, do the same to you.
We all have a tendency to want a wise mentor that has the answer to all our problems. But we should be weary of wanting it. Because the same psychological mechanism that makes us follow Kim Kardashian or Jesus is the one that makes us follow Jim Jones or join the Nazis.
Even when an influencer passed all your 3 filters, it’s important to treat each new message they share as a separate thing which in itself, needs to pass the same filters.
The Final Filter: Ideas As Perspectives Instead of Truth
When we found an idea that helped or inspired us, we tend to hold on to it. We treasure it, and draw it firmly on our new map of reality.
And depending on where you’re at in life, different ways of looking at it may be beneficial for you at different times.
You don’t go to the gym in a suit. And neither do you go to a wedding dressed as a sweaty mess with your protein shake in hand. Watching the bride walk down the aisle while you’re grunting loudly as if auditioning for “Hulk: The Musical”. Or loudly slamming your dinner plates on the floor when you’re done with dessert, because some fitness influencer always does it with his weight plates after deadlifting.
In the same way, some perspectives and ideas may be good for you at a certain stage in your personal development. But that doesn’t mean they’re good as a permanent way of life.
For instance, if you recognise yourself as naive and easy to take advantage of, you may benefit from learning machiavellism, politics and power games. But diving too deep in it can lead you to some very dark places. Before you know it you’ve fucked up all your friendships and find yourself donning a cape, breathing like Darth Vader, plotting world domination in some dark basement.
Or if you have a lot of negative self-talk, going the “positive psychology” and “good vibes only” route may lift your spirit for a while. But once you have a solid baseline of life satisfaction, it’s time to confront the deeper issues which you’ve been denying. Or your positivity will become your prison.
Sure, you can put on a happy face and recite positive affirmations like a broken record, but deep down, your inner demons are still doing the Macarena. You can’t just plaster a smile on a crumbling foundation and expect everything to be rainbows and unicorns. It’s like trying to paint over a cracked wall with a “Life is beautiful” poster. Eventually, the cracks will show. And then it’s time to embrace the darkness, confront those demons, and hope you’ll find true happiness in the process. And as usual, at different steps in this process, you will find different beliefs and ideas beneficial for you.
That’s why, just like you know you can take off your suit for the gym, or leave your dumbbells at home for the wedding, you should always remember that your thoughts and ideas are nothing but the clothes your mind is currently wearing.
And sometimes, when they stopped being a good fit for you, it’s best stick with the one thing that is never a bad idea:
Take them off and just get naked.