Why I Quit My Dream Job As An Instagrammer

It’s been a… while. A year ago I went from daily posts on social media to nothing. Radio silence.

To those of you who were worried over my sudden disappearance, I sincerely apologise.

It’s one thing disabling your Instagram account while you study for an important exam or go on a week-long digital detox. Taking an unannounced year-long hiatus as someone who’s spent six years sharing their life online is, well, bonkers.

So what prompted my silent departure from the online world? Here’s the story…

The beginning of the end

You may be underwhelmed to learn that my disappearance wasn’t caused by an out-of-the-ordinary event. I hadn’t been abducted by aliens, gone into witness protection or moved into a hermit cave with no WiFi. 

What started it all was a good old-fashioned quarter life crisis. It began the very day I turned 25 – at the very least it had the decency to be punctual, provided I live to be a hundred years old.

Over the weeks that followed I started questioning everything I’d ever believed in, from my stance on love and spirituality to the merits of my chosen career. It was as relaxing as you may imagine – a subtle blend of existential dread and self-doubt. Fun, fun, fun!

I’ve always been inquisitive. Seeing the world was never enough; I also wanted to understand how all the pieces fit together. But for some reason my curiosity had never really extended to myself until that point. I was just blindly letting life happen to me, instead of taking real ownership of my actions or their consequences.

Finally life had forced me to face the ultimate question, the one that lurks beneath the surface of all our decisions: What is the meaning of life? Is there any?

My curated life

The harder I tried to focus on that question, the less clarity I felt. It was like trying to swim against a riptide, in an endless sea of distraction. Likes, comments, notifications – all my thoughts were drowned out by a constant electronic buzz.

And so I did the only thing I could think of at the time. I shut it all down. “I’ll just take a week off and see how I get on,” I thought as I logged out of Instagram. That was at the end of October 2018, sixty five weeks ago.

Not obsessively checking social media gave me the freedom to take inventory of my life and my professional achievements. If that sounds like a celebration of my contributions to society, well, it wasn’t.

Don’t get more wrong, I’ve done many things I’m proud of through Girl vs Globe. I got to help out with two humanitarian campaigns run by the European Commission. I’ve been fortunate enough to visit 47 countries and meet some incredible people on my travels. I’ve become a solid videographer and photographer, with images sold for print and displayed at international exhibitions.

School girls in Malawi, March 2018.

But, for the most part, my achievements mainly benefitted me. It’s hardly surprising – I first started blogging in 2014, a wide-eyed twenty-year-old student who just wanted to see the world. Getting to travel for a living was a dream come true and sharing that passion with others the cherry on top. I didn’t spend much time thinking about the implications of what I was doing because I was too busy being young and having fun.

Fast forward to today, six years since this blog’s humble beginnings. I have terabytes of photos from places so beautiful they hardly seem real, from Austria’s snow-capped mountains to the twinkling lights of the Grand Bazaar.

I’m incredibly grateful for all I’ve been able to experience. A small part of me would be perfectly content spending the rest of my life chasing passport stamps and gorging myself on foreign delicacies.

There’s another, bigger, compartment in my heart that feels unfulfilled by that vision though. Not because encouraging others to explore the world isn’t important – I still believe it is. It has always been my mission to inspire women to travel the world, without fearfully looking over their shoulders or putting their dreams on hold because society tells them to.

But when I look at my Instagram gallery, I don’t see the real world. What I see is an imaginary universe, whose sole purpose seems to be acting as a backdrop to an international showcase of my prettiest dresses.

Here I am, standing on a mountain top in a summery frock. That’s me, posing in a hot tub with a hibiscus flower behind my ear. I’m that smiling girl with perfectly curled hair, even though I’ve just climbed an active volcano.

That’s so not me. That’s not the legacy I want to leave behind.

The price of inspiration

By the end of 2018, I’d made one realisation. I wasn’t happy with who I was. I needed a change.

A lot had already changed in my life over those three months since my 25th birthday. I’d gone through a really painful breakup, left China and flown to Prague to spend Christmas with my parents.

I still naively thought that I might log back into Instagram any day and resume posting, which is why I never said anything to you guys. “I just need a bit more time to think,” I told myself. “It’s just a little break.”

Making a public announcement would have made my departure real, and I wasn’t mentally ready for that. Not only did I have no idea what to say, I didn’t even know if I wanted to leave in the first place.

But the more time I spent away from social media, the clearer it became that it was part of the problem. It had contributed to a lot of the things I didn’t like about myself and wanted to change.

They were things many of us struggle with. Insecurity. Imposter syndrome. Perfectionism. A constant need for approval. Chasing likes, instead of living in the moment. Defining my self-worth by my online popularity. Caring more about getting the perfect picture than about how I was treating those around me.

My scariest realisation was that I was no longer running the show – I’d become a puppet in a production of my own making. My travels were no longer something I savoured like I had done when I was twenty. They were something I rushed through in mechanical strokes, smiling for photos but never stopping to enjoy the moment.

Take that fateful 25th birthday, for example. I celebrated turning a quarter of a century old in the quaint Chinese town of Xingping. I enjoyed the trip, but I spent most of it frantically trying to capture it for Instagram instead of allowing the experience to teach me something.

That’s the other pitfall of being an influencer… Your large online presence puts you on an artificial pedestal and makes it seem like you’ve got life all figured out. Fine, perhaps not all of it. But certainly more than most people.

After living on that pedestal for half a decade I’d begun to believe it myself. Instead of trying to improve myself, I lived in the naive belief that all those travels had turned me into a more enlightened version of myself. Spoiler alert: they hadn’t.

I’m definitely better off for all the incredible experiences I had thanks to my work as a blogger. It’s impossible not to be impacted by meeting female genital mutilation survivors in Ethiopia or child brides in Malawi. You can read all about that in my post called I’m Never Leaving Africa.

But instead of helping me become a better version of myself, my jetsetting lifestyle eventually started stopping me from doing just that. It kept me under the illusion that my self-development had been taken care of, when in reality it had barely begun. Taking an extended break from social media was very healthy for my ego, which was in desperate need of being taken down a peg or three.

Bad influence(rs)

Before I finally logged out of Instagram at the end of October 2018, I’d gone on a huge unfollowing spree. I wanted to eliminate all the toxic influences from my life.

When I took stock of who I was unfollowing I noticed a disturbing trend. They were all girls like me – the ones who flitted from country to country like colourful butterflies, and never seemed to run out of freshly pressed clothes or mascara.

If following these girls was having a negative impact on my sense of self-worth, what did following me feel like to my audience? What was I really inspiring people to crave?

My feed didn’t focus on understanding different cultures and engaging with locals. I’ve always tried to incorporate that message in my descriptions, because I genuinely believe that’s the best part of travel.

But that’s not what my Instagram gallery shows. It’s not an accurate reflection of the world – it’s a showreel of already stunning places carefully framed, edited and styled to look their best. It’s a happy-go-lucky fantasy full of big smiles and city streets with no crowds.

When faced with these beautiful images, most people react in one of two ways – they either acknowledge them as the picturesque make-believe they are or they feel inadequate because their own reality doesn’t match the splendour. And you know what? Most people belong to the latter camp, even the ones who should probably know better. I know because I’m one of them.

I’m aware of all the effort that goes into creating those aspirational visuals, yet not even I am immune to feeling like a failure. Before my unfollowing bonanza, I couldn’t look at my Instagram newsfeed for longer than a minute without feeling like the least accomplished human being in the history of humankind. Depending on whose content I was looking at I would feel unattractive, uninteresting, unfashionable… all the uns!

A Salem State University study exploring the effect of Instagram on self-esteem made some interesting findings. Its author, Nicole Dion, asked female participants aged 18-25 to follow fifteen specific celebrities for 4-6 weeks. By the end of the experiment the vast majority of them reported negative feelings about themselves. This is what one of them wrote:

“Being a female and being asked to follow multiple, beautiful female starlets did not make me feel very good about myself. Constantly seeing their, probably photoshopped but nonetheless beautiful photos, didn’t really inspire me to want to be like them but rather just made me feel bad about the way that I look. Their photos seemed effortlessly gorgeous.”

Here’s the thing, everyone. As a full-time influencer, your social media is your livelihood. If the engagement on your photos plummets it takes your income along with it. And you know what gets the most engagement on platforms that revolve around aspirational content? Photoshopped yet effortlessly gorgeous images.

Most social media influencers don’t explicitly set out to lie about who they are. We don’t try to conjure up an image of unattainable perfection. But, in many ways, that’s exactly what our carefully curated galleries signal to the world. 

When I look in the mirror I don’t see same Sabina you see in my Instagram gallery. That version of myself requires a curling iron, a £3,000 camera and a custom-made Lightroom filter. All I wake up to is the reflection of a regular twenty-something woman, with all the joys and tribulations that come along with that.

Our regular everyday selves aren’t wrong, but there’s a reason most professional Instagrammers don’t include them in their galleries. Curated highlight reels pay the rent in a way unfiltered honesty rarely seems to.

Is it possible to be financially dependent on Instagram yet still show yourself and the world as it really is, with all the flaws and mundane struggles?

Of course it is – just look at @humansofny with 9.7 million followers. But it’s far from easy and I, like many other young people on the Internet, never quite managed to get the balance right.

What happened next

After spending the end of 2018 feeling completely lost, I packed a small bag and moved to Greece for three months. I spent that time volunteering with an organisation called We Are Here, which provides education and community support to the people living inside Nea Kavala refugee camp.

The three months I spent in Nea Kavala were genuinely some of the best of my life.

Once my three months were up, I flew back to Prague to spend some time with my parents. I was really sad to be leaving everyone I met behind, but it was time to figure out the next step. I knew I was headed in the right direction but wasn’t sure how to turn it into a viable job.

When two of my university friends invited me on a surfing retreat in Bali, I said no. A big part of me couldn’t imagine lazing around on a beach after all the suffering I’d witnessed. An even bigger part of me was too busy obsessing over my future to allow myself to live in the present.

But two days before the retreat’s start date, my parents sat me down and practically ordered me to go. “If you want to build a life centred around helping others, you need to learn to take care of yourself first,” they said. Unable to argue with their sound logic I booked my flight and jumped on a plane 48 hours later.

And you know what? My trip to Bali ended up being exactly what I needed (of course my parents were right!). I left the island feeling reenergised, in touch with my spiritual side and full of purpose. This didn’t happen because Bali is some magical eat-pray-love vortex of self-realisation. My trip was transformative because I allowed it to be.

I spent it firmly rooted in the present. Instead of burying my face in my camera’s viewfinder and chasing Instagram likes, I looked inward. I didn’t even bring my camera, despite Bali being one of the most photogenic places on Earth!

I’m still really into those natural, unposed shots 👀

Every day I searched for answers. I learnt from everyone around me without trying to prove why I knew better than them, as I had done many times before. I listened instead of trying to think of something clever to say.

Less than a month after coming back, I found an amazing job at a social enterprise that helps homeless people get back into work. That was in June – I’ve been working there ever since and loving this new challenge.

But more on that in another post. Now it’s time to answer the question you’re probably wondering about!

Is Girl vs Globe coming back?

First of all, thank you for finishing this tome of a blog post. At more than 2,500 words it’s not exactly a fast read. But seeing as I’ve been silent for such a long time, I felt like I owed you all a little more than a simple hi.

I’m sorry for keeping you in the dark for so long. I just really needed time to figure things out on my own and it ended up taking a lot longer than expected. My need to disconnect makes sense in retrospect, but at the time I was thoroughly discombobulated (fun word but not a fun feeling!). I was constantly tiptoeing between thinking I might post again the next day to nearly hitting delete on all my social media. It wasn’t the right time for explanations.

But now I feel like the right time has come because I finally have answers. Not all the answers but some, and that feels good enough. Here’s what I know…

I want to start posting on Girl vs Globe again.

But instead of just amplifying my own voice, I’ll use it to share other people’s stories. I’m currently working on a really exciting YouTube series featuring inspiring women from all over the world. It’s all about kindness, self love and just generally being a good person. I absolutely can’t wait to share the first few episodes with you!

I’ve got a full-time job so I obviously won’t be posting every day. But when I do post it will be because I have something interesting to share – not because I’m worried about being punished by an invisible algorithm.

Now that posting on Instagram and YouTube no longer has to pay my bills, I suddenly feel free to use them for more than painstakingly perfected content. I’m really excited to give a platform to other women who deserve to be heard, instead of it being all about me.

That’s it for today. Thank you so much for reading this far and for sticking with me. I’m seriously proud of the community we’ve been able to build through Girl vs Globe – you lot are amazing!