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Originally published December 19, 2018. Updated December 1, 2023.
Content Warning: anxiety, depression, the holidays
“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 can be so harmful to our mental health.
Why Comparison Can Be Harmful to 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 lives up to fit an unrealistic image made up of a compilation of curated images scattered throughout our social media feeds, anxiety begins to grow.
Where anxiety grows, mindfulness dissolves, and it’s harder to stop and focus on the good.
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.
Comparison and Social Media
This year, I found myself basing how I viewed the holidays should be on what I saw 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 holiday 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…
The Comparison Letdown
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 to the famed light show everyone else was going to, 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 festive 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 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.
The Comparison Shift
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 this holiday season may not line up with reality.
I started asking people around me how their holiday 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 in.
I asked people if they could feel the “holiday spirit” (whatever that is), and, surprisingly, most said they didn’t.
I began to wonder if how we feel about the holidays has less to do with how things actually are and more to do with our expectations of how they should be based on comparison.
I was with a friend recently who was despairing 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 moment, and then I responded by saying that I don’t think the problem is that the holidays are supposed to be the most joyous time of the year, but they are failing at it.
The real problem, I said, is that we hold on to this unrealistic ideal that the holidays are meant to be perfect.
We use phrases like “most wonderful” and compare real life to what we hear in a catchy jingle.
We need to let go of this notion and acknowledge the reality that The holidays are hella stressful and are filled with family and relational dynamics, overwhelming schedules, shopping lists and deadlines.
If we can let go of comparison this holiday season, 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.
Lauren is the Founder of Libero Magazine. She started Libero in April 2010, when she shared her story about her struggles with an eating disorder and depression. Now, Lauren uses her writing and videos to advocate for mental health. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, playing cozy video games, and taking selfies with her 65lb goldendoodle, Zoey.
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