By Matt W. Sandford, LMHC
Perfectionists can really love Christmas. And, perfectionists can really be extra frustrated at Christmas, meaning that those around them may struggle with more stress and frustrations and hurt feelings as well.
“We really need to get the Christmas cards out by this date.”
“No,no,no the lights need to go in sequence and over that way.”
“I just can’t find the right gift for my Mom. And when I finally found just what I wanted on Amazon it was sold out! I can’t stand it!”
Here’s a joke for you; how many perfectionists does it take to have the right Christmas? Just one – because everyone else is screwing it up.
That’s a joke, but the point is that perfectionists can be hard to celebrate holidays with – just ask my wife.
What I would like to hash out involves what is driving the perfectionist and then what perfectionists and their friends and family can do to help make the holidays a more enjoyable experience.
Perfectionism at the Holidays
So, what’s a perfectionist to do? There is so much at this time of year that feels like it needs to be just right or mostly right – in order to be satisfied and fulfilled.
Can we take a moment and explore that thought? What would it mean to you if you could not give someone the perfect gift for some reason, or if you were blocked from making your favorite kind of cookie, or that you lost a prized Christmas CD, or had one of your meaningful ornaments broken, or being able to have the best view at your kids’ Christmas event?
Perfectionists have a lot of trouble letting go of expectations and of accepting change. I don’t meant that they are just nostalgic and it isn’t rigidity per se. I think we can all say that we have memories and experiences that have been profound and special to us. But the perfectionist has a strong fear about not being able to achieve that specialness of feeling and experience. And they have interpreted that the specialness is in a particular formula. Why are they oriented that way? I believe it is because they have come to believe that they are responsible for that specialness.
They have placed that responsibility on themselves because they do that about almost everything that matters to them. The idea here is that a whole lot of life is about their ability to perform. “It will be good enough if I figure it out, if I put in the effort, if I do what needs to be done.” This is about where the frustration for others in proximity comes in. Because if others are not on board with helping and complying with the perfectionists’ plan and approach – then they are perceived by the perfectionist as thwarting not only the plan, but the perfectionists’ ability to be satisfied. When others challenge the plan, change the plan, question the plan, ignore the plan, or lag in their efforts to follow through on their part of the plan – then the perfectionist is going to take it quite personally. Because you are messing with their ability to be satisfied in life, to be satisfied with themselves in a core way. If a perfectionists’ identity is wound up in their performance – and it is – then to in some way block their ability to perform is to threaten their identity.
How to Improve the Holidays
- Perfectionists need to challenge their perceptions and increase their self awareness
This means that when you begin to get upset, that you need to practice stopping yourself and focus inward first. Ask yourself what you are feeling and perceiving and even believing about a situation. And then challenge those perceptions and beliefs. “Is it really true that such and such needs to be this way? Why must it be that way? Why do I believe that if it were different that that would be terrible?”
- Perfectionists need to challenge their beliefs about attacking and shaming others
This means that when you are frustrated or disappointed, that you reflect before you speak. “Is it really true that if someone messes up or fails to meet my expectations in some way that they deserve to be blasted or embarrassed or confronted about it?”
- Those dealing with perfectionists can employ empathy
When you understand that the perfectionist isn’t simply being a jerk (even when they behave in jerky ways), but rather, that in their perceptions, their identity is riding on things going a certain way, than one can be helpful by being empathetic. “It seems that being able to have things that way means a lot to you.” Or “I can understand that it is frustrating to have your goals blocked like that.”
- Those dealing with perfectionists can help by speaking truth
You can follow up empathy with inviting the perfectionist to a healthier point of view. “But, you know that even if that doesn’t work out the way you had hoped, that it doesn’t mean anything about who you are as a person.” The key here is not to come off as lecturing or speaking platitudes, but to speak into their core identity – letting them know how you see them and what you believe about them and what is true about them.
- When there are attacks or criticisms or blow ups, focus on grace and forgiveness.
The point is that even when it goes poorly to still use the above points. If we are the one who has acted out, we still need to reflect on it and learn from it and go and offer apologies and if we were on the receiving end, we still need to be empathetic and supportive and seek to understand. Because,
- We often learn and grow more from our mistakes, than if we hadn’t made any. Had for the perfectionist to embrace, but there it is.
Have a great holiday!
Matt Sandford is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor and has been counseling for 8 years. Previously he worked in student ministry for 14 years, including two years in China. He has been married for 21 years and he and his wife are raising twins.
For more counseling resources visit our website at: www.lifeworksgroup.org
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