Thanksgiving is the first celebration of the holiday season. For many this is a time filled with fun and festivities. But for a perfectionist, the holidays are exhausting due to their need to serve the perfect meal, host the perfect party, buy the perfect gifts, create the perfect family gathering, and show off the perfect house, husband, and children.
Striving to have perfect holidays makes people miserable. Studies link perfectionism to anxiety, depression, eating disorders, body image issues, and obsessive-compulsive disorders. Feeling compelled to make holiday events perfect arises from a combination of several underlying factors:
- Being extremely concerned about making mistakes
- Having extraordinarily high personal standards
- Believing that people set very high standards for you
- Having high expectations of other people
- à being especially sensitive to criticism
- Being overly concerned about parental expectations
- Having a great deal of self-doubt about decisions
- Feeling a strong need to keep things organized
Having high standards doesn’t necessarily lead to being perfectionistic. The former involves setting reasonable goals for yourself and others in order to determine what outcome will be good enough to give you a feeling of success. Perfectionists, on the other hand, hold themselves to impossibly high standards. They’re afraid that anything less than perfect will be seen as a failure. But individuals who set unrealistically high standards guarantee they’ll end up feeling like a failure.
Research reveals that perfectionism often arises in response to having been subjected to “indirect aggression.” This is a form of social bullying that’s characterized by manipulative behaviors such as being given the silent treatment, having people talk about you behind your back, discovering someone’s divulged a secret of yours, and being treated nicely in private but mean in public. Indirect aggression is often practiced by women who want to emotionally batter and bruise their victims rather than physically bloody them the way male bullies often do.
In a study published in the journal Aggressive Behavior, the authors found that perfectionistic thinking is a coping mechanism frequently developed by people who have felt considerable rejection in the past. Attempting to be perfect becomes a way for people to assert control in social situations. Perfectionists are trying to overcome their feeling uncomfortable or threatened around others.
Defeating perfectionistic patterns requires finding the personal courage to face your imperfections. You must learn to acknowledge that you’ve made many mistakes in your life and become comfortable with the fact that failures a part of being human. Acceptance of your imperfections frees you from the fear that you’re someone who’s not good enough to have loving connections with others
As difficult as this can be, it’s easier than the alternative. If you continue to be driven by the need to appear perfect, you’ll only be denying the role you play in creating conflicts, which renders you powerless to resolve them. Good relationships result from focusing on making incremental improvements rather than finding faults.
Instead of needing something to turn out perfectly, you can resolve to focus on making progress so things turn out somewhat better than last time. For example, if you want to improve how you get along with your family at holiday gatherings, look at what small step you could take to make connecting a little better this year. You could prepare a list of positive attributes that you appreciate about each family member, and be prepared to express gratitude for all of the good that you find in each person. Even if they act the same, your positive attitude will make you feel better about yourself.
Accepting Alexander Pope’s wisdom that “to err is human, to forgive divine” allows you to lighten up on your expectations of yourself and others. Forgiving imperfections allows you to focus on what people do right.
Another tool for overcoming perfectionism is to use the 80/20 principle. Studies have shown that 20% of your efforts typically produce 80% of the results that you achieve. That means that the remaining 80% of the effort put into a project only contributes 20% to the outcome. How much time and energy will you waste trying to have a perfect holiday when you could do far less and still create some wonderful occasions?
The final strategy for defeating perfectionism is to avoid the compare-and-compete game. You’ll always lose because somebody else will have more. Change your focus from what other people possess to what will brings genuine joy. Filling our hearts with love is the best gift of all.