Shoulding on the Holidays, part 3: Comparison

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 and thinking about this very blog which I already knew would be about comparing ourselves to others. While doing all of that my brain had the capacity 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 shoulding 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 awhile and you should go to work, but I’m talking specifically about those things you “should” do around the holidays. You should get the Christmas lights up, you should prepare a big dinner for everyone, 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 presence and therefore joy.

Comparison is an act of violence against the self. – Iyanla Vanzant

Do our expectations of the season cause us to compare ourselves to others? It happens to the best of us as illustrated in the 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. Not only are you comparing your large life to a condensed version of theirs, you are also comparing what may be your day one to their day 154. When we start to compare our unedited lives to the highly edited lives of others we unfairly judge both sides. Our lives look inferior, their lives look superior. 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. The grass is always greener, right? How do we free ourselves from unfair comparison and bring more joy back into the holidays?

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. 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, 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. 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.” Warm feelings come from within, not from stuff. 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 because they’re getting paid.

Maybe Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more. -Dr. Seuss, The Grinch Who Stole Christmas

We are about to roll into the season of Christmas cards. 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 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. 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 may be rose-colored. Also, they are reporting about things that have already happened and been resolved. These events may not have been so peachy in the moment. Remember how distance makes things look better? Plus, we tend to forget about bad stuff.

You’ve seen your friend’s amazing family pictures and you say, “I really should get family pictures done for our Christmas cards.” Then your photo session is a disaster. You wonder why your family can’t manage to take a decent picture and envy your friend’s perfect family. What does she have that you haven’t got? Your pictures turned out alright, but it was so difficult! Suddenly you are in humbug mode. Just hold up a minute! You get to see a snapshot of one instant in your friend’s life. 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 didn’t like what she had planned. Once there no one would sit up straight, the kids have been whining 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. Wow. Does that scene sound anything like your situation? Makes you have a little more compassion for both her and yourself, doesn’t it?

Social media is the worst for this. No one posts their terrible pictures, kitchen fails, or crappy vacations. Everyone posts about their good side and the fun times they have. You don’t get to see the rest. Comparing your unedited life with their 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 to boot. 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?

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.

You can stop comparison in its tracks and get your freedom back in two easy steps. The first step is 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. Second, choose gratitude over envy. 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. Be aware, then choose gratitude.

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