Letting Go of Holiday Perfectionism

Do you have issues with holiday perfectionism?  I have suffered from it for years.  It all started with the “perfect” Christmas tree.  Ever since I’ve been married and had my house, my Christmas tree had to have the right amount of lights – several strings of lights deeply set within the tree and several more strings of lights on the outside branches.  One year early in my marriage, my poor husband tried to help.  After an hour of fighting he swore that he would never help me with the tree again (and he hasn’t).   Jeff didn’t quite understand why we needed so many strings of lights deeply set within the Christmas tree (after all, you can barely see them).  So we fought.  About how many lights should be on our Christmas tree.

Don’t get me started on how the packages under the Christmas tree needed to look.  They had to have beautiful wrapping paper, with bows placed just right.  The colors and designs on the paper needed to go together, but not be too similar (I would spend hours searching for the perfect paper and bows).  And the bows were almost never the stick-on kind (they had to be the ones you make yourself).  I have wasted time in years past wrapping presents – spending lots of money and killing my back while taking forever trying to make my packages look perfect.

And then we come to the most draining of all my holiday activities.  Cooking and entertaining – I would do so to exhaustion.  We often host Christmas.  So, of course, I would go crazy ensuring that I served the perfect meal with lots of food.  I always over-prepared.  Never mind that the end of the year is my busiest time of the year (usually working 60+ hours per week) and I would have to stay up late into the night just to make everything needed for my “perfect” holiday meal.  Never mind that I would spend a fortune on food that wasn’t needed.

Guess what?  I was playing the martyr and had absolutely no idea.  Until this year.  One thing that has been interesting about this year (and frankly some of it is due to this blog) is that I’ve been much more introspective.  I’m reviewing what I do and why I do these things.  And what I discovered about myself at the holidays wasn’t exactly pretty.  I’ve been desperately trying to create the “perfect” Christmas experience (whatever that means).  And it has left me exhausted and drained.  Furthermore, it made me feel under-appreciated (which created a whole host of nasty emotions).  And it was completely and utterly my fault.

No one asked me to do all of this.  It was never necessary.  Let’s get real.  No one spent any time looking carefully at my wrapped packages other than me.  They were too busy wondering what was inside the package just before ripping my hard work to shreds.  No one noticed (nor did they care about) how many lights I put onto the Christmas tree.  Truth be told, many of them could barely be seen.  Although people enjoyed my cooking, that wasn’t what people really cared about.  They wanted my company and comradery.  Isn’t that what we are all searching for when we get together?

So, I decided to change things this year.  Instead of trying to make everything look and taste perfectly, I decided to let go.  Do what I had time for (and gave me joy) and let go of the rest, without any shame or guilt.  And guess what?  Letting go felt empowering.  It freed me from the shackles of perfectionism that I had placed on myself for so many years.

My presents were pretty, but I used whatever paper we already had and use primarily stick-on bows.  No one noticed (other than me).   And I didn’t mind so much.  Because wrapping all the presents this year took me a fraction of the time it used to. And I actually found wrapping to be enjoyable again.  My son Noah even helped me.

Although I still put the lights on the tree this year (my poor husband doesn’t trust me just yet on that one), I did it quickly without worrying about the “perfect” amount of lights.  And guess what?  It was the first time in a long time that I had fun doing this activity (I think mostly because I cut the time to a quarter of the time I usually spend on this particular chore).

I let my kids decorate most of the tree this year (which was a first).  They had a blast doing so and my tree looked lovely.  And a beautiful memory was created with them that I will never forget.  This memory wouldn’t exist had I not let go.  It was created because I allowed things to happen naturally.

I cooked what I could and didn’t worry about the rest.  And I didn’t worry about making the perfect cut-out cookies.  They tasted wonderful regardless of how they looked.  A little honesty here:  we didn’t host Christmas this year.  That helped matters quite a lot.  However, we did host Thanksgiving.  And I made the decision to let go right before Thanksgiving.  I decided not to burn myself out cooking way too much food and trying to make the perfect experience.  And it worked.  I wasn’t stressed and had one of the best hosting experiences of my life.

So what did I learn?  I learned that you cannot create “perfect” memories or situations.  When you strive so hard to make things perfect, you make yourself and those around you miserable.  But when you let go and let things happen naturally and spontaneously, that is when magic happens.  Think back to your fondest childhood memories.  I’m willing to bet that those moments resulted from spontaneity.  Perfect moments are never planned.  They are often perfect because of imperfection.  An imperfect spontaneity that just happens.  Much like the memories that I now have because I let my kids decorate the Christmas tree.  Those are perfect memories that will be forever cherished.

This lesson was huge for me.  It is the first time in a long time when I didn’t feel stressed out because of Christmas.  What I now realize is that Christmas wasn’t making me stressed.  I was doing it to myself – for no real reason at all.  I’m sure that some of you are just like me – thinking that you can and should make the “perfect” holiday for all and making yourself absolutely miserable.  I’m here to tell you to let go.  Even if just a little bit.  I promise that your holidays will be much better for it.  Until next time…

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  1. [* Shield plugin marked this comment as “0”. Reason: Human SPAM filter found “port” in “comment_content” *]
    It’s funny that of all your posts, this one may have struck the most visceral chord. You are far from alone in having issues of perfectionism around the holidays. Over the years this particular thing has really irked me, even though it’s not really a part of my reality. Which tells me that I’ve got some work to do here as well. 😉

    I think it’s worth examining WHY we get hung up on “perfect” events, be they the holidays, weddings, birthdays, or whatever. Often we are trying to recreate something special from our past. Either real or imagined (our memories of what happened decades ago during childhood are notoriously unreliable).

    As you point out, the reality is that many of those special moments were spontaneous. And you can’t recreate serendipity. So our efforts to bring back a beautiful moment from the past are doomed to failure and that leads to disappointment and even bitterness. At its very worst, we may even resent those around us who don’t seem to be as cooperative in our quixotic efforts as we might like.

    I think there is another part to this as well. The holidays, especially the time from Christmas through New Years is an enforced break from the routine chaos of our daily lives. For a few short days, we leave off the commute, the piled up work, the school plays, the after school activities… we get to simply settle in with our family. And we want to take that opportunity to impose not just order over the chaos, but beauty over ugliness, peace over conflict.

    Perfection in our otherwise imperfect lives.

    Just for that one moment, that is all we want, an ideal, picture perfect holiday. Either as we imagine the holidays are supposed to be or as we imagine they were growing up. Or as we imagine some fictional, perfect adult would make it be (curse you Martha Stewart!).

    And as parents, we also tend to pile on guilt – if we don’t make it perfect, we are “ruining Christmas” for our children and families. We become our own worst enemy, setting impossible goals on ourselves and those around us in order to deliver an experience that is unattainable. And frankly, undesirable.

    Children don’t want a picture perfect tree and food, as you point out. They do want to pitch in and be a part of something special. And it sounds like you opened yourself up to that this year, which is fantastic.

    You gave yourself and your family the gift of a relaxed, full participation holiday this year, which makes me happy just reading about it. I hope that you can feel the lightness that comes from not carrying the burden of perfection in your life and apply that even more broadly.

    The curse of highly successful people is that the qualities that drove them to success don’t always work as well in their personal lives. It sounds like you are finding that balance and applying it very nicely in your own life, which is inspirational.

    1. As always, you have some wonderful additional insight to add to this site. Thank you. I’m starting to believe that there is perfection in not being perfect. The “perfect” moments that we try to create don’t ever seem to work out. Yet there is a sort of perfection in just letting life and events happen. That is when magic occurs. Maybe perfection isn’t the right word, but honestly to me it is correct. The “perfect moments” I remember in childhood were perfect because they were beautiful, spontaneous and real (they were also often messy). Yet that is what I remember as “perfect”.

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