Christmas is the season of comparison – here’s how to deal with it
Written by Katie Rosseinsky
From catching up with old friends to gazing at enviably glossy pictures from a stream of parties and dinners, Christmas celebrations can sometimes cause us to look at our own lives and find them wanting. We asked the experts for their advice on how to dodge the comparison trap over the festive period.
’Tis the season to compare yourself to others. Whether you’re scrolling through a highlights reel of picture-perfect celebrations on Instagram or making small talk with a friend of a friend at your annual trip to the local pub (and don’t get me started on the flurry of Christmas engagement announcements that inevitably pop up on your feed around this time of year), the festive period can sometimes feel rife with opportunities to measure yourself against others’ achievements – and find yourself wanting.
Social media has given us myriad new ways to compare ourselves to our peers (and to people we’ve never met) at this time of year, but the human urge to compare ourselves against one another goes back thousands of years. It’s “hardwired” into our brains, explains therapist Juulia Karlstedt, because “it has been evolutionary advantageous for us to be able to compare our perceived social worth and make adjustments accordingly. If you were doing well in your social group, your social group was less likely to kick you out, which would have been a death sentence for our ancestors living in small, isolated communities.”
The stakes might be (a lot) lower now, but the impulse remains, and we are especially likely to compare ourselves when we aren’t feeling our best. “Comparison is driven by fear and stress so when we have fewer stressors and higher self-esteem, we are much less likely to compare ourselves to others,” Karlstedt adds.
Christmas is prime time for these feelings not only because the end of the year is often a “more reflective” point, as Karlstedt says, when we’re more “aware of the passing of time”, but also because we’re often interacting with people outside our closest social or family circle. Just as we’d be unlikely to share the honest truth about how we’re feeling with them, they are likely to share the biggest and best moments of their year when you’re catching up – conversational ‘top lines’, if you will. It just so happens that those things (“I got a promotion!” or “I moved in with my partner!”) are often the sort of milestones that can inadvertently make us feel insecure if we haven’t reached them yet.
“If ever there was a time to compare and despair, it’s Christmas,” says Lee Pycroft, psychotherapist at Goldster. “Meeting up with old friends and relatives who you may not have had much contact with, plus the endless streams of parties and celebrations and selfies can for some people leave them in a spiral of comparison. It is natural for people to want to meet the emotional need for status, attention and connection and only reveal what’s going well in their life as this is what is celebrated in an achievement-based culture, but hearing this over the festive period can take its toll.”
To break out of this spiral of weighing up your own achievements against those of others (and feeling rubbish in the process), Pycroft recommends breaking down “what exactly you are comparing yourself to” because it might be a vision of success that doesn’t actually work for you. “We live in a world paved with milestones,” she says. “Some people may think that if they don’t own a property, have kids, get married, bag the perfect job [and] stack their bank account at certain points in their life then they are inferior. We need to question if we are just moving with the crowd.”
“We have been conditioned to follow a very linear view of what success is,” agrees mindset coach Rebecca Barr of The Femalepreneur Coach. “Question yourself whether you are comparing because they have something that you actually want, or something that you think you should want, according to society’s expectations.” To focus on what you do care about, Pycroft suggests taking “a personal inventory of the things that are meaningful to you that you have achieved during the year [to] focus on what’s gone well” (and no, you don’t have to share it on social media to chase likes).
If there are certain situations on the horizon that are likely to trigger negative comparisons, “mental rehearsal” could be a useful way to manage your feelings and allow you to enter potentially difficult conversations feeling more resilient. “Write down what you would like to happen, such as feeling calm and at ease, and move your mind to become more solution focused,” Pycroft says. “Vividly imagine yourself in the situation that would usually trigger you and see yourself looking and feeling the way you would like to feel.”
As comparison is rooted in self-criticism, practising gratitude is a helpful way to ward it off. “Gratitude doesn’t mean comparing downwards or invalidating our feelings,” Karlstedt says. “It means being fully present and enjoying the things we have in life rather than focusing on the things we don’t have.” She suggests taking some time to look back at the people and places that “have brought meaning to your life” over the past 12 months, then thinking “about how you can connect with them during this festive period”.
And if your Instagram feed is becoming unbearable? It might be time to stick your phone on airplane mode and take part in a mini digital detox. “Social media is a carefully curated highlight reel so it’s important to take anything you see with a pinch of salt, ground yourself in gratitude for even the smallest things each day and use these triggers as the inspiration of what you want to create in 2023,” says Barr.
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