The holidays are stressful for many, if not most people. It is my busiest time, and I’m sure a lot of therapists would say the same. When people have issues of shame and perfectionism, and the other issues that go with them, they have some extra stresses that can maybe be avoided. Perfectionists have good intentions, and this can inadvertently make them exhausted and feeling very badly when dealing with holidays.
Not surprisingly, perfectionists who are
hosting for the holiday meal are quite hard on themselves. I have seen numerous people agonize over making their home perfectly
clean, doing it well ahead of time, and then
hardly being able to live in them for fear of getting them dirty again. I knew someone who didn’t want anyone to sit in the chairs
because of the indentations it made—and this was several weeks before the actual holiday.
The same goes for the cooking. Some
perfectionistic types get so worn out by stress that they can’t even enjoy things, and they are unaware that what the guests most would like is for that person to relax and spend time with them. This is not a time to be perfect, and if people could remember that, how much less stressful holidays would be. Likewise, expecting family members to be near-perfect because it is holiday time is not realistic.
People will act like themselves, and to idealize them and then experience crushing disap-pointment is rough on the spirit. It is much better to remember that people will be the way they are, and to adjust expectations
accordingly. The criticizers and fault-finders will be the same, and it is no good to try to avoid it by overworking. It is better to
accept that these are their issues and not
yours. Childhood issues can surface again, with adults finding themselves trying once more to win over a parent or in-law’s impossible-to-get approval, and it is so much
better to let go of this. For those whose
parents had no approval to give, the short-coming was in them, not you, and trying yet again to be perfect will not fix them and is not good for you.
In a similar vein, those who are hosting
should accept the help of those who offer. A common issue for perfectionists is needing to be needed but being afraid to need. During the holidays, this translates into so much more work than there needs to be. It’s all right to need others and let them help and feel useful and appreciated. It will take some stress off of you and allow others to feel good about themselves. You do not have to prove how needed you are by doing everything yourself. The holidays are a good time to begin seeing and acknowledging the needs of others, as well as their limitations. It is truly a “gift” to them, as well as to yourself, and when you fully realize this, it is extremely
Control is another issue common to the
perfectionist. It seems that during the holidays especially there are things that are out of your control. If someone is sick, gets drunk on holiday “cheer,” or is simply delayed by weather, for example, it is not in your
control. You can only be responsible for yourself. The fault-finders, criticizers, the angry people, will be themselves, and people who do not get along still won’t. If you let go of trying to control things outside of yourself,
a huge weight will be lifted from your shoulders. My clients so often say that they have to make their boyfriend or girlfriend get
along with their father or mother. Whatever degree of good behavior someone is capable of, accept that they will do no more or less as a result of your attempts to control. Trying to make perfect beings out of highly imperfect people is a form of control, l and you will be much happier without it.
For those of you who read my book, you know that indecisiveness is a major issue for most perfectionists. No solution is perfect.
When you are planning what to cook, to bake, to wear, which table arrangement to use--
these are not moral issues. They are neutral issues, not right or wrong, but simply choices. Choosing the “right” or “wrong” one will not have strong consequences.
The truth is, as I have said in my book,
perfectionists mean well. They are overly hardworking people who want to make others happy; they are extremely well-intentioned people. Yet, after hearing year after year how people suffer all of the perfectionist issues around the holidays, even more than usual, I have come to feel very badly for so
many I know and have known. I don’t idealize holidays or people, and it is my hope
that perfectionistic people can use the holidays to take a break from the self-critical inner voice that keeps saying they are never good enough. While the holidays bring out all the issues, just as crises do, they present a chance to go beyond what was before, and to recognize underlying feelings instead of fighting them, and to take a step toward true feelings and acceptance. There is nothing easy about this, I know, but perhaps the holiday season can be the beginning of facing those underlying feelings that drive the
perfectionistic behavior. Maybe the holidays can herald a beginning in the process of not having to be perfect.
Aleta Edwards, Psy.D.
I am a psychotherapist in private practice, with a strong interest in shame and perfectionism. I will periodically post my thoughts about these topics and other observations relating to emotional health.