Perfectionism and the Holiday Season

When it comes to holidays, there are a lot of ideals out there, messages that come at us in both subtle and obvious ways.  Sometimes we react to these messages by trying to attain them…perfectly!

Emily’s Story

Emily made the decision that Christmas 2011 was going to be different.  She was going to be organized.  She would start her shopping in September, keeping her eye open for treasures whenever she was out and about.  She would start her Christmas cakes on the Remembrance Day Weekend so they had ample time to cure before she gifted them in December.  On the first weekend in December she would start her holiday cards, almost 200, because she liked to receive them as much as she liked to send them.  She took special delight in the thought of hand-embossing them all.  Similarly, she would ensure that as many gifts as possible were homemade or ethically sourced but would do whatever it took to get her son Mark the highest rated toy of the year, even if it meant lining up outside the store at 5:00 AM on the day of its release; taking a chance and disappointing a child on Christmas was so bad, it was almost evil.

Having the right tree may just be the highlight of her year so it had to be right: wouldn’t it be a better experience for the family if they could select and cut down the tree themselves, even it came from an (organic) Christmas tree farm?  Wouldn’t it be wonderful, as an offering to her extended family, to handle Christmas dinner singlehandedly, but having most, if not all of it, prepared in advance so that Christmas Day would be a breeze?  All her wrapping would be done a week before so that she would be at peace on Christmas day, able to enjoy her family and her seasonally decorated home.

A recipe for holiday heaven or holiday hell?  Fortunately, most of us don’t apply as much internal pressure as Emily does, but it’s not difficult to find elements of Emily’s story in ourselves.  This in itself is not bad, however.  It’s when this pressure extends to perfectionism that we often find ourselves in hot water.

Perfectionism: What is it?

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines perfectionism “a disposition to regard anything short of perfection as unacceptable.” Wikipedia adds that it is “a belief that a state of  completeness and flawlessness can and should be attained.” Perfection varies from person to person but typically constitutes an internal set of standards that the individual has set for him or herself, shaped by life experiences.

Perfectionism Checklist

Symptoms include:

  • Intense judgement of self or others
  • Chronic feelings of dissatisfaction, failure, inadequacy or depressed mood
  • Worry and/or obsessional thoughts
  • Stress-related physical complaints such as headaches, stomachaches and sleeping problems
  • Anxiety or panic

Perfectionism, Meet Holidays

So what happens when a perfectionistic attitude gets together with the holiday season? Societal pressures often dictate that holidays should be a time of togetherness, relaxation, ease and time with loved ones that is free of conflict; yet on the other hand, certain standards should be met:  traditions honoured, people pleased, self pleased (e.g. I must be happy), standards met.  This creates internal conflict: how do I do it all, not get stressed out and love every minute of it?  Well, we don’t. Or we modify.

But while modification may be a sensible solution, it’s not always easy.  It may involve changing our standards, doing things differently, taking shortcuts, getting more rest or disappointing people.  We may then question who we are on a deeper level and if we have the belief that “we are what we do,” or that our self-worth is measured by others’ opinions of us, then this can be more than just a little uncomfortable.

We Can Change

Even though it’s potentially painful, we can choose to do things differently. Part of the key in making this happen is to be kind to ourselves through this transition.  This may include things like getting support from a friend, writing down our thoughts or practicing accepting them and letting them come and go naturally (mindfulness, meditation).  With practice and commitment, this will improve.

Holiday Anti-Perfection Tips

In 2009 I wrote the article, Surviving The Holiday Season where I touch on perfectionism and pressure during the holidays, including possible antidotes such as:

  • Try a potluck meal, instead of doing all the cooking.
  • Go in on a group gift or draw names.
  • Give yourself space to rest, even if it means certain things can’t be accomplished.
  • Don’t spread yourself too thin: focus on spending time with people who mean the most to you.
  • Focus on time spent together, letting go of the “ideal togetherness activity.” Much time can be wasted and stress induced trying to do the perfect thing together.
  • Stay on budget: you’ll be much happier come January.
  • Find joy and gratitude in simple things, such as learning to make a paper crane or relishing a favourite cookie.
  • Let go of judgment and opinions about how your time should go. Roll with things, flexing when conditions dictate and taking action when needed.  It’s a lot of pressure and a recipe for futility to try to control others and certain situations.
  • Self Care: treat yourself kindly and be good to yourself, even in small ways.  What a great way to start the New Year!