I am a perfectionist. I like life to go as planned and as it should. I like doing a good job. I like meeting expectations and succeeding. I like plans organized and executed without flaws. I want life to turn out as I imagine it in my head. Unfortunately, this is not always possible.
Perfectionism can be a positive attribute. Being a perfectionist means I pay close attention to details, think of every possible thing, and come prepared. In a way, my perfectionism helps me thrive, but sometimes it reaches unhealthy levels and can be difficult. The difficulties arise when I fail, something goes wrong, when I forget a detail, or an outcome arrives that I haven’t anticipated. When I fail, forget, or make a mistake, I have a hard time adjusting to the outcome that, to me or others, is less than desirable. I don’t take failure or surprises well, and even though I know this, my first reaction shakes my self-confidence and makes me feel worthless. I beat myself up for being foolish, sometimes I cry, and sometimes I have a panic attack. Then, I talk myself down, and tell myself that only the worst of us expect perfection, and everyone who is human makes mistakes. Say that again.
Perfectionism is ingrained in my personality. I strive to plan ahead for the best outcome that I can imagine. The anxiety I have fostered over the years has me fearing failure and avoiding messing up as much as I can. My wish isn’t to BE perfect personally, but to create order and avoid chaos. It has to do with me wanting to control every possible outcome to not upset myself or others, thinking if I can do this, I can avoid the negative side effects of failure. I live my life this way and most of the time I can let failures go and take myself to the good place after something goes wrong. But, towards the end of every year I begin to notice a sudden downward twist in my mental health. Inspired by the other part of my story… The Holidays.
As much as I hate to admit it, my urge for perfection is heightened around the holiday season, and alas, the seasons of greetings are among us, so let’s talk about it. We are here in the thick of jingle bells, turkey, expectations, and… STRESS. I turn into an emotional mess under the pressures of the season, and even though I know I should not sacrifice my mental health for the holidays, that’s so, so, easier said than done. It’s difficult because saying “no” is hard, and feeling guilty is heavy, and missing a loved one is painful, and longing for normalcy is… What is normal anyway?
As we approach Thanksgiving, I can feel myself getting tense, stressed, and anxious because it’s something in my life that is not perfect. I used to love the holidays when I was younger, Thanksgiving in particular, being my favorite. I loved visiting my family, the food, and the laughter when we played games. Every year my oldest cousin would write a play, we would rehearse it, and, at the end of the night, we would put on a performance for the adults. This fun was everything to me at that time.
When I was a child, I loved peeling potatoes and helping my mother in the kitchen. At meal time, I would fill my plate with food and after eating, take a long turkey-day nap. I would cry at the end of the day because I was having so much fun and I didn’t want the fun to be over. I miss this feeling. As an adult, and with the changes that have happened in my life over the last decade, I have come to fear the holiday season. It reminds me of how everything is not as it used to be, or how I wish it could be, and it’s tough. But, at this point in my life I am inspired to change my expectations on what I think the “perfect” holiday looks like, because “perfect” is subjective and it can be different if I want it to be.
I know holiday stress isn’t new, or unique to me. I’ve read articles about people dreading the holidays or feeling stressed out. I’ve watched YouTube videos about how to survive the stress of the holidays, the stress of demands, and the stress of expectations. After plugging into my search bar, “how not to be stressed over the holidays,” I had to stop and ask myself… “Why do I need everything to be the same as it used to be,” “why are the holidays so stressful,” and “why am I getting so bent-out-of-shape over these bullshit ideas in my head?”
With these thoughts dancing around, I decided to reflect on my feelings of seasonal festivities and try to decide why I tense up when it gets close to the holidays. Maybe, it’s my expectations and my desire for everything to be as it used to be when I was younger, or my anger for life letting me down. Maybe, it’s my inability to escape the gray cloud that hangs over my head because I can’t help but long for the days when life was easy and the holidays were something I looked at as “fun.” Maybe, it’s because as we grow up, life changes, and I am starting to realize it. Maybe it’s because I can’t control every detail no matter how hard I strive for perfection. All these things and more, (yeah, all these things and more)… Stress me out, give me anxiety, and make me want to hibernate through the holiday season. Times have changed and, until now, I haven’t given a single thought to changing with them, but if there is anything I’ve been preaching since I’ve started writing, it’s that there’s still time to grow and heal.
This year I am hosting my first Thanksgiving. My first reactions of being a host were fear and a sudden urge to run. The excuses that ran through my head were plentiful and included, “We don’t have a kitchen table, our house is small, and I’ve never cooked a turkey before.” I tried to break down my thoughts and excuses because these “problems” seemed (and are) so petty, and small, and irrelevant. I started to think about my selfishness and how it had nothing to do with my nonexistent table or my small house, and it had more to do with the “perfect Thanksgiving” that I had in my head. This idea of perfection that holidays used to be for me. The picture that I painted of a big dining room table with a tablecloth, matching plates, and my family in perfect health sitting around that table smiling. In this dreamland we eat dinner, play charades, and perform a three act original masterpiece… or bring back a classic, an early 2000s version of Titanic, remade with paper silverware and ridiculous dialogue. In this version… I am ten years old.
This idea of perfection that I had in my head is no longer imaginable and no longer needed. Families change, evolve, and break-up. Families are nontraditional, messy, and made up of friends, coworkers, significant others, and dogs. Families are the self-partnered, and the group of random strangers, and instead of closing myself off to happiness because I can’t change my mindset, I should allow myself to evolve, let people in, and accept change. I have to squash my expectations and standards of what holidays “should” be, or look like. The holidays are different for everyone. No one expects as much from me as I expect from myself, and If I can paint a new picture of perfection, let go of control, accept change as a part of life, then I can move forward.
This year I am changing my expectations. I am letting go of the past. I am deciding that my new version of the holidays can be great in new ways. I am creating new, nontraditional, traditions. My family is different now and includes more than those who share my blood and it’s wonderful. This year I will open my door and allow failure and happiness into my heart. This year we will eat on folding tables and chairs. We will drink out of plastic cups. I may not have fancy things, a big house, or that same spark I had as a child. But what I do have is a desire to grow and evolve and keep moving forward. The people who surround me are the people who I have chosen to let into my heart, the people who I continue to choose every day. Life and the holidays will always be stressful, but I can change my thoughts and continue to get stronger over time. I’m lucky and blessed with life. I am lucky and blessed with the ability to let go of old ideals and create new ones. I am lucky and blessed with the people who come in and out of my life and change me in magical little ways. I am lucky and blessed, and I am grateful.
My meal might be overcooked and there’s a chance I’ll drop the potatoes on the floor. Maybe I’ll forget to turn on a crock pot or forget to buy the sour cream. I can’t control everything, but I can control the thoughts in my head, and I can control my expectations. I can allow imperfection. I can let myself live a life filled with flaws, mistakes, and failures because that’s what’s real. I can let my “family” be different and messy because I’m not perfect and neither is life, but it doesn’t mean it can’t be great.
Enjoy your holiday season, your nontraditional traditions, your mess, and your season of growth.