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The Carnation Complex: What Childhood Valentines Teach Us About Ourselves

In general, I enjoy holidays, but like many, Valentine’s Day isn’t my favorite. The explosion of red, pink, and hearts everywhere can be somewhat off-putting. This holiday, in particular, can feel a little superficial and a lot overblown—especially when you consider retailers are expecting spending to reach more than 14 billion dollars this year.  

Looking back, I vividly remember Valentine’s Day in high school. We sent each other carnations, and by the end of the day, everyone was eagerly counting their flowers, calculating who had received the most. Very few were enjoying the carnations for their beauty or fragrance. Most were more interested in the measure of popularity the flowers represented.

I didn’t realize at the time, but this ritual of sending, receiving, and comparing tokens of affection had the potential to leave many of us feeling vulnerable, exposed, or even ashamed. Now, through the lens of adulthood, I can clearly see this was one of the first times I was ensnared in a comparison trap.

Sowing the seeds of discontent

On Valentine’s Day, if you’re not in a relationship, you might compare yourself to those who are. If you’re in a relationship, you probably can’t help but want to know how your partner's actions hold up to others. Regardless of what they do (or don’t do!), gauging the health of your relationship based on what did or didn't happen on Valentine's Day is unlikely to be helpful.

This topic came up last year during my time on Glennon Doyle’s We Can Do Hard Things podcast. Glennon was honest about her experiences with jealousy and bravely admitted to struggling. She said when she feels envy creeping in, she externally manifests the opposite of her jealousy, knowing her heart will catch up with her head.

Choosing to flip the switch on what is certainly a visceral emotion can require self-awareness and self-control, which many struggle with. Little did we know how much that flower exchange was priming our hearts for a life of comparison!

Comparison impacts contentment

The high school carnation exchange is just one example of a comparison trap. The saying “keeping up with the Joneses” exists for a reason. How many times have you seen children squabbling over who is the fastest, the strongest, or owns the most toys? As adults, you might side-eye a friend, comparing jobs, designer accessories, cars, homes, or vacations. Unlike kids, one would hope grownups can make their observations silently.

Judging your situation against another person isn’t always wrong. You can and should use the differences you see as inspiration to reach for something more. How you process and respond to these feelings is what matters.

Constantly eyeing the achievements of others can motivate you to try and outdo them. Usually, this ends up being at the expense of your own well-being, because left unchecked, these feelings can quickly morph into jealousy. In turn, that kind of resentment can negatively impact your own contentment. Suddenly, rather than focusing on your goals, you can find yourself trapped in an all-consuming cesspool of negativity. 

You don’t have to remain stuck there, though.

Negotiating with ourselves

You have the power to choose how you’ll respond to the comparisons you make. You can acknowledge your feelings while still taking proactive steps not to get mired in envy. Remember what’s remarkable about your own life.

This kind of negotiation with yourself is common because holding your life up to someone else’s is natural human behavior. That also means you’re the only one with the power to intentionally and logically make a change. You aren’t compelled to respond with envy. 

Everyone struggles with insecurity from time to time, but you can choose to be present and happy with what you’ve achieved more than you desire the lifestyle or accomplishments of someone else. You can stop yourself from letting a healthy dose of inspiration twist into covetousness.

So, will you allow your observations to remind you of the fantastic parts of your life? Will your comparisons motivate you to make positive changes? Both are possible, but both require an intentional perspective backed by self-awareness.

Your Valentine for life

Avoiding jealousy isn’t easy or natural. While self-awareness is required, you need self-love, too. When you truly appreciate who you are, you won’t often find yourself in a position of envy because you know you deserve more. You can more easily recognize what makes you wonderful, so you focus less on what someone else has and more on your own achievements. 

You’re worth more than your jealousy wants you to believe. So, this Valentine’s Day, try embracing yourself as your first and most important love. Ultimately, aren’t you your own best Valentine?


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