“Comparison is the thief of joy.” (Theodore Roosevelt)
There was a time when I had this written across my mirror to remind myself to avoid comparing my body or appearance to others’. Comparison is an easy trap to fall into, though, and this year–and this holiday season, in particular–I am finding myself falling into the trap over and over again.
Before I get into the ways I (and maybe you?) have fallen into this trap over the last few weeks and how we can avoid it, I first want to touch on why comparison is so harmful to our mental health.
In short, comparison is the opposite of gratitude.
Where gratitude has us focusing inward on what we have and the areas of fullness in our lives (big and small) comparison has us focusing outward on what we do not have. This is because the only way to know the absence of something is to be aware of where it is present. So whether it’s money, friends, a social calendar, or a certain lifestyle, it is through comparison that we discover our lack of these things.
When we let go of gratitude and focus on what we wish we had rather than what we have, depression can set in.
Then, as we frantically try to build our life up to fit an unrealistic image made up of a compilation of curated images scattered throughout our social media feeds, anxiety begins to grow. And where anxiety grows, mindfulness dissolves, and it’s harder to stop and focus on the good.
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When we are in this cycle, we find ourselves “without” “behind” and “missing” things we didn’t even know we wanted (and, perhaps, things we may not even want at all). This is exactly what happened to me.
This year, I found myself basing how I viewed Christmas should be on what I was seeing on social media.
I would see pictures of friends (and strangers) gathering with others, attending elaborate, “Christmas-y” events, and taking part in all the festivities the time of year has to offer.
And then there was me, with little on my calendar, a family scattered across the world most of the time, and an introvert-sized friend group where no two friends overlap, making the possibility of any group hangouts more like Seinfeld’s “Worlds Colliding” and less like an episode of Friends.
I watched as families seemed to put together their activity calendars seamlessly; meanwhile, mine seemed like a nightmare of back-and-forward messages with little resolution.
I watched as friends and strangers posed at Christmas parties and light shows–glowing with holiday spirit–as I sat at home, resenting life in the North American suburbs.
Little by little, comparison began to take over until there was no room left for gratitude.
And then something happened…
I went to a local light show that was the talk of the town. Seriously, this event had so much hype (especially on social media) that it seemed like a can’t-miss event. I scrolled through the hashtag, staring at others’ happy faces and perfect photo ops, wanting so badly to feel what I perceived them to be feeling.
So I went. And guess what? It was a disappointment.
The lights were mostly tacky, the displays were less than festive, and the whole thing seemed to be set up as (1) a children’s playroom and (2) a photo op for a perfect Insta-gallery.
As I looked around at people all done up (like myself) cramming into the 2 places that looked slightly Christmas-y and taking their Instagram photos (pose > snap > analyze > repeat), I realized something:
I was behind-the-scenes of the Instagram photos now, and the truth is, it kind of sucked.
And I’m not saying this to come off as a Grinch. Seriously, I found out later that the event was actually getting pretty bad reviews everywhere outside of social media.
Suddenly I realized how quickly I’d slid into the comparison trap, not just with this event or the activities I felt I was missing out on, but with everything.
A picture is just a picture. It’s not the whole story.
I could post a couple of photos from that night, and I am sure that some would see them and wish they, too, could take part in such a beautiful festive occasion and be as happy and festive as I appear in the photos. They (like I do) would make all kinds of assumptions about what that night was like and how I felt, and, more than likely, they would fall into the comparison trap, too.
To be clear, there is nothing wrong with a posting nice photo. The problem doesn’t lie within the photo itself; it lies within how we respond to the images we see.
After that night, I began to get the feeling that maybe I wasn’t alone, and, just maybe, my perception of what others’ were experiencing so far this Holiday season may not actually line up with reality.
I started asking people around me how their Christmas plans were coming along. The majority said it had been a nightmare. Why? Because trying to coordinate schedules with multiple people is tough.
Additionally, many felt there were more activities to do than they had time, energy, or even interest for.
I began asking people if it feels like “Christmas or “The Holidays” to them, and, surprisingly, most said that it didn’t.
I wonder if this has less to do with how things actually are and more to do with our own expectations and comparisons based on how we think they should be.
I had a friend recently despair how it’s “supposed to be the most joyous time of the year” and yet they’ve experienced nothing but stress, frustration, and disappointment. I thought about it for a minute, and then I responded by saying that I don’t think the problem is that Christmas is supposed to be the most joyous time of the year but this year it isn’t.
The real problem, I said, is that we hold on to this unrealistic idea that Christmas is meant to be perfect.
We use phrases like “most wonderful” and compare real life to what we hear in a catchy jingle.
However, we need to let go of this notion and acknowledge the reality that The Holidays are hella stressful, are filled with family and relational dynamics, overwhelming schedules, and shopping lists with a deadline.
If we can let go of comparison, then we can embrace gratitude for the little moments of joy and wonder:
like stumbling upon that perfect gift, taking that first sip of eggnog, or falling onto the couch at the end of a long, stressful day, and losing ourselves in the glowing lights.
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