I got sucked into it just this morning. I was looking at one of the piles of catalogs and store ads that come in the mail this time of year, and there was a picture of a well-dressed couple in an embrace looking so utterly happy. It wasn’t so much a conscious thought as it was a feeling of…well I guess it was envy. What was I envious of? The moment? The well-dressed man? Her perfect hair and svelte figure? Their embrace? The fact that this couple actually got to go out and take a picture together and look happy about it?
Whatever it was, it was ridiculous. And actually kind of funny. I was looking through the mail while my coffee was brewing thinking about this very blog about comparing ourselves to others. While doing all of that my unconscious self had some primal need to compare my life to those people’s, and they were probably models.
The last two weeks we have been talking about “should-ing” and how it sucks the joy out of the holiday. “Shoulding,” in a nutshell, is focusing on what should be happening rather than what is actually happening or worrying about what you should do rather than what you want to do. Yes, since you are an adult there are some things you really should do. You should clean your house once in a while and you should go to work, but I’m talking specifically about those things you “should” do not adulting.
For example: You should get the Christmas lights up, you should prepare a big dinner for everyone keeping everyone’s food restrictions in mind, or you should uphold all of the traditions your grandmother upheld regardless of whether anyone enjoys them or not. There are shoulds around parties, food, drinks, travel, and gifts. Shoulds are unfair expectations of yourself and other people. They are death sentences for joy.
Comparison is an act of violence against the self. – Iyanla Vanzant
Do our expectations for the season cause us to compare ourselves to others?
It happens to the best of us as illustrated in my example above. Marketing strategies, Christmas cards, and social media all invite us to compare our messy lives to a cleaned up snapshot version of someone else’s.
When we compare our unedited lives to the highly edited lives of others, we unfairly judge both sides. Our life looks inferior to their amazing life. From a distance, everything looks better. Someone else’s job seems easier and more rewarding than ours; someone else’s relationship seems warmer and more fun than ours; someone else seems more interesting than we are and has a bigger house that is always clean. The grass is always greener, right? How do we free ourselves from unfair comparison and bring more joy back into the holidays?
The business of comparison
Christmas means business for retail stores. Holiday sales are a big indicator of economic function. Companies ramp up their advertising around this time of year, as evidenced by all of the catalogs and flyers in your mailbox. This advertising often depicts happy families having a perfect dinner served on a beautifully decorated table, parties with impeccably dressed guests, piles of perfectly wrapped gifts under a fashionable tree, or happy children with the best toys. All examples of how the holidays “should” be. This is the kind of thing I got sucked into this morning. We should know better, but we continue to aspire to the standard set by advertising. Remind yourself that these are highly stylized versions of life. They look great because they are completely made up.
Your own authentic Christmas may not have piles of gifts, tons of perfectly coordinated decorations, chargers, or a table runner. If you focus your energy on the people and the spirit of the season, it will be amazing without these things because “Christmas doesn’t come from a store.” It isn’t about these things. It’s about the connections we make with the people we choose to be with, practicing kindness and goodwill, and keeping the Advent with self-reflection. When we try to buy the feelings these connections provide rather than cultivating them in our own hearts and with the people we love, we are often left feeling empty and disappointed. Like your heart is “two sizes too small.”
Think about it: Are you touched and delighted by a special gift from your certain someone because of the gift itself or because he took the time to think of you? It really is the thought that counts. The people in the ads are happy with all of their stuff because they’re getting paid.
You didn’t steal Christmas. You stole stuff. – Cindy Lou Who, The Grinch (2018)
No matter your religious affiliation, we are all subject to the Christmas card, or worse the Christmas newsletter. Don’t get me wrong, I love to catch up with the people I haven’t heard from since this time last year, but it does invite comparison doesn’t it? Everyone seems to be doing so great; their jobs are great, their kids are great, and everyone looks so polished and put together in the picture.
The trouble is, just like on social media, everyone puts their best foot forward in these cards. No one puts their fails in a newsletter. Well, almost no one. I remember an epic newsletter that my brother-in-law wrote several years ago that was a parody of hilarious misfortune, mocking the tendency to sugarcoat our lives for public consumption. I say again, don’t compare your unedited life to the highly edited lives of others. You are seeing their life through a narrow scope that is probably rose-colored. Also, they are reporting about things that have already happened and been resolved. These events may not have been so peachy at the time.
Ode to the Christmas picture
You’ve seen your friend’s amazing family pictures and you say, “I really should get family pictures done for our Christmas cards.” So you book a photo session and buy matching outfits…and it ends up being a disaster. It’s amazing that you ended up with one decent photo after all of the drama.
You wonder why your family can’t manage to take a decent picture like your friend’s perfect family. What does she have that you haven’t got? Suddenly you are in humbug mode. Just hold up a minute! Maybe your friend finally got that perfect picture after struggling with her family all day. She shopped for weeks to get the perfect coordinating outfits, then the baby spit up, the dog ran through the mud, and her husband, who didn’t like what she had planned, fought against the whole thing. No one would sit up straight, the kids whined all day, everyone was fighting, and they were all about ready to give up on the whole thing when photographer somehow managed to get that one perfect shot before the whole situation totally melted down. Exactly like what happened to you. Maybe a little worse. But no one talks about what happens behind the scenes. Makes you have a little more compassion for both her and yourself, doesn’t it?
The social media problem
Social media is the worst for comparison. No one posts their terrible pictures, kitchen fails, or crappy vacations. Everyone posts about their good side and the fun times they have. They only post their good hair days when they are made up, edited, and filtered. You don’t get to see the real, raw versions of people. Well, except for me. You get to see lots of videos of me right after a workout and un-made-up pics of me on Instagram and Facebook for exactly this reason. Some of them aren’t very flattering, but I like to be a real person on social media just like in life.
Comparing your unedited life with other people’s highly edited lives is unfair to everyone. Wait, have I said that before? Just because someone looks put together doesn’t mean they are. Some serious struggle may be going on behind the scenes. This goes for social media and people you meet at holiday parties. I remember a woman I met at a social event years ago. I thought she was the epitome of class and grace balanced with a down-to-earth demeanor and smart to boot. She dressed nicely, held herself well, and was interesting to talk to. I wanted to be her. She seemed to have it all put together. Then she died. Come to find out she had an alcohol addiction and was on several prescription medications for depression. These two things did not mix well and now she is gone. What a blow! That is when I learned that you cannot judge people’s lives from their outward appearance. What kind of struggle may be going on that we can’t see?
Compassion, not comparison
Life is messy. Expecting that your experience will be a breeze because someone else’s experience looks easy is unrealistic at best. How many times have you wished for someone else’s job because it looks so much easier or so much more fun than yours? Everyone else’s job looks great because it isn’t yours. If it were yours, you would have to deal with the daily grind that you don’t see from a distance, and it wouldn’t seem so great. Realizing this not only brings about compassion for others but for ourselves as well.
Stop comparison and get your freedom back in three easy steps.
- Step 1: Awareness. This morning, as I waited for my coffee, I laughed at myself for my silly behavior. I didn’t judge myself because I felt exactly what the ad wanted me to feel. I was simply aware of the feeling and sent it on its way with a chuckle. Then I sat down to write about it because that’s what I do.
- Step 2: Stay in your own lane. Don’t worry about what everyone else is doing. You do you. If you wish to become successful, comparing where you are now to where you want to be isn’t your path. Study the processes by which successful people became successful, not the perks of their success.
- Step 2: Choose gratitude over envy. Another way to say this would be to choose love over fear. Be thankful for the life experiences and unique perspective you have, even if it is difficult. By choosing not to listen to the negative chatter in your head and being thankful for your messy, authentic life you cultivate compassion for yourself. That’s it! All you have left to do is to make it a habit. That won’t be hard because you will feel better every time you do it.
If you find this useful, there’s a good chance your friends will, too. Share this with your friends right away while you are thinking of it. Thanks for reading!
Originally published at DonWings on November 13, 2017