You’re determined to get everything just right this Christmas, from selecting the best tree to creating a centerpiece that could give Martha Stewart a run for her money. But the pressure you’re carrying on your shoulders is starting to make you buckle. “If it’s not perfect, then I’m a failure,” you admonish yourself. This black-and-white mentality is the voice of toxic perfectionism, and it leads to stress, self-criticism, and exhaustion.
Clarissa W. Ong, PhD, co-author of The Anxious Perfectionist, says, “Perfectionism is especially toxic for women, because the expectations we have for ourselves are amplified by societal expectations to be the ideal mother, hostess, and on and on. So when our unrealistically high standards aren’t met, we feel unworthy.” What’s more, the holidays trigger a perfect storm of perfectionism, as we try to compensate for the unpredictability of the season — from family tensions to up-in-the-air travel plans — by attempting to control as much as we can. But the tighter we hold on to an illusory version of the ideal holiday, the harder we are on ourselves.
Thankfully, it is possible to strive to do our best without falling prey to the pitfalls of perfectionism, says Elizabeth Lombardo, PhD, author of Better Than Perfect. “Go for that A+ in everything you do, but if you fall short, it’s not failure, it’s data — information that will help you learn and grow.” Just read on for easy ways to silence your inner critic and savor the joy and togetherness of the season.
The Trap: ‘I Want To Be a Great Hostess’
The ham has to attain the perfect tropical tan; your lights have to reach the tallest tree; your guests have to be happy as clams. It’s a dizzying list of “musts” that leaves you anxious. “The first thing to do is notice that you’re imposing ‘rules’ on yourself,” says Dr. Ong. “But unlike actual rules like, ‘Tuesday is always Tuesday,’ you can decide if you want to follow them.”
The Treatment: Enjoy the Journey
Dr. Ong believes that “Perfectionism is outcome-oriented, but we get more joy from the process.” Indeed, making small changes lets you savor the journey. “When you try something new, jot down what you think will happen — as well as what does.” For example, you may think adding cumin to your potatoes will cause a revolt, only to discover it’s a hit. “The more we experiment, the more flexible we become, turning perfectionism into growth.”
The Trap: ‘If It’s Not Perfect, Then I’m a Failure’
As you take your famous pumpkin cheesecake out of the oven, you lose your grip on it, and the dessert hits the floor. “I let everyone down,” you worry. “Perfectionism makes self-worth conditional: ‘If the meal is perfect, then I’m lovable,’” says Dr. Lombardo. “The best remedy for conditional self-worth is unconditional self-worth: showing yourself love no matter what.”
The Treatment: Treat Yourself Kindly
When plans go awry, give yourself what Dr. Lombardo calls BFA (Best Friend Advice): “Imagine what you’d tell a friend and show yourself that kindness.” Perfectionism gets more intense the more stressed we become, while self-compassion lowers anxiety, sparking problem-solving. “You might turn a crushed pie into parfaits or make a joke about it,” says Dr. Lombardo. Simply being kind to yourself widens your perspective.
The Trap: ‘I Need To Keep Everyone Happy’
As your holiday guest list grows, so do your concerns over potentially clashing personalities. “I have to make sure everyone gets along,” you say to yourself. “We idealize the holidays so much, it’s easy to believe that if everyone isn’t bursting with joy, the day is a disaster,” says Dr. Ong. But this mindset keeps us from enjoying the small moments that matter most.
The Treatment: Try on a New Role
As Dr. Ong points out, “A lot of women say that ever since they were little, they took on the role of peacemaker. Maybe you had a conflict-ridden household, and you tried to keep everyone happy.” Once you pinpoint the roots of this role, consider picking a different part to play. “For example, you may just want to be a listener this year.” Perfectionism tells us that we need to play every part and make everyone happy, but all you need to be is you.
The Trap: ‘I Have To Do It All Myself’
As you juggle holiday to-dos, your aunt asks if she can help by arranging the flowers on the dining table. Though you appreciate the kind gesture, you’d rather do it yourself and politely decline her offer. In fact, you take the old adage, “If you want something done right, do it yourself” to an extreme, creating impossible standards that leave you feeling depleted. “It’s scary for perfectionists to delegate, because they lose the perception of control,” says Dr. Ong. But it’s vital for your well-being to let yourself be a little vulnerable and ask for help.
The Treatment: Release the Burden
Simply step back and observe your fears, urges Dr. Ong. You might say to yourself, “I’m noticing I’m afraid to accept help.” Then go a little deeper and pinpoint why — are you worried you’ll be seen as incompetent? How realistic is this? Would you think the same of a loved one who asked for help? Our friends and loved ones want to help us, and when we let them in, we foster stronger bonds. In the end, simply having a mantra like, “I’m going to put in my best effort, and that’s good enough,” keeps the pressure at bay and allows us to grow.
A version of this article originally appeared in our print magazine, First For Women.