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‘Tis the Season for Toxic Comparison

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By Charles L. Raison, MDDecember 14, 2015
From the WebMD Archives

If the holidays bring you down, you’re not alone. Of course, the season can be rough for lots of reasons – loneliness, family conflict, financial stress, over-burdened schedules.

But there’s another reason, one that is not often spoken aloud: almost everything about the holiday season encourages us to compare ourselves with other people and with our own expectations of who we should be. Indeed for many of us the holidays function as a yearly tally of our success and failure in many of the realms of life that matter most to us: family, friends, and money.

Most other days of the year, we can stay focused on the challenges and pleasures that are unique to each of our lives, but the holidays force us to step back from our usual routines and do what the season demands. And because we are all doing the same thing, it suddenly gets much easier to see whether we are doing it better or worse than our neighbors. And nothing cuts most of us to the quick like not being as good as other people.

In recent years there have been several of studies around a topic that has been blandly labelled as “social comparison”, but that encompasses all the white hot emotions that go along with the feeling that one is not measuring up: envy, jealously, and worst of all, shame and embarrassment. The primary findings from these studies are clear: although one might get an exhilarating rush from coming out on top in any given game of comparison, in general, the very act of comparing ourselves to others activates negative feelings.

Our tendency to compare ourselves to others is nothing new. In fact, we can see it throughout the animal world. The prettiest bird gets the most mates. Comparing oneself to others is built into the fabric of life itself.

But across hundreds of thousands of years that humans evolved we lived almost exclusively in small groups of 50 to 100 people. These people would have been your entire world. And as the evolutionary theorist David Buss has observed, in such a small group you would have likely been the best at something and had a special place because of it. Now media allows (forces?) us to compare ourselves constantly with the best in the entire world. Good at sports? Would you make it in the NBA? Good at singing? Would you make it on The Voice? In our world we all come up short, and it’s been suggested that this may be one reason why rates of depression have been rising across the last 50 years in the developed world.

Our innate tendency to compare ourselves with others (and with our idealized images of ourselves) is such a powerful driver of how we feel and what we do that it is almost hard to recognize the central role it plays in many of our lives. And yet once we see it for what it is, most of us recognize that it is a major source of misery—that nagging feeling that somehow we are not as good as other people, that somehow we are not measuring up.

It is one thing to say that we’d be a lot happier if we stopped comparing ourselves to others, it’s another thing to actually begin to do it. But beginning to do this is one of the surest ways to increase our sense of well-being, not just during the holiday season, but throughout the year.

If you recognize that the holidays bring you down because they make you feel that you don’t measure up, try using the holiday season as a time to do something different, something you enjoy that doesn’t fit into any prefab mold of how your life should be. Perhaps this year we can use the holiday season as a chance to practice the art of accepting ourselves as we are in all our uniqueness, with our successes and our failures. That would be a present worth getting.

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