The Perfection Trap—Staying Real Can Set You Free

Thanksgiving is bearing down on us this week, with all the other holidays hot on its heels, and the drive to create perfection is weighing heavily on many minds. The search for perfection, and even the belief that it is possible is one of the great myths of our time. It was brought home even more fully this week by an article in the New York Times about altering kids’ school pictures so they could appear perfect.

What’s so ironic about this misguided, though evidently profitable, practice is that we are essentially telling kids that they aren’t good enough as they are. Moreover, that missing tooth, that strand of hair that won’t stay put or that scar are part of what make kids kids. Twenty years from now, will we look back to an idealized memory that has nothing to do with what was really happening? Ironically, when one thinks about how Barbie is criticized for being perfect and an image of an idealized female that’s impossible for anyone really to achieve, a sector of the population is willing to spend money to artificially change their kids to what they would wish them to be, rather than how they are. Is this healthy? Of course not. And it effectively robs the child of his or her identity in order to satisfy an adult ego—and says to this child, “This is how we wish you were.”

Yet this is just one symptom of the perfection disorder that grips so many people. A combination of hope, romanticism and denial, the idea of the “perfect holiday” is tormenting a lot of adults I’ve spoken to in the past week. There is the woman who says her sister makes Thanksgiving dinner, but their mother is always critical, leading to tears. There are the parents who are already emailing me trying to find holiday gifts, without which their holidays will be “ruined.” There is the family who find themselves in financial strain this year, panicked at not being able to give lavish gifts. All of these people have bought into the idea that there is a “perfect” holiday, and they are falling short. And they’re very upset.

If this isn’t insanity, and the exact opposite of what the holidays are about, I don’t know what is. We read Dickens and How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and we’re touched by their messages of spirit over stuff, but somehow many people can’t get beyond that, and instead turn the holidays into a time of torment to survive, a measure of their worth as human beings because of what they’re able to produce. Is it worth it to make yourself upset about creating a “tablescape” that will impress your family?

I can’t even tell you how many people tell me versions of, “December 26 is my favorite day because then it’s all over, and I can just enjoy myself and my family.” How tragic is that?

So, what’s to be done? First of all, a dose of reality. Admit that no two holidays have ever been the same from year to year. Chances are if you work, or are having some financial challenges, driving yourself to create an idealized image is going to make you nuts. I’m all for traditions, but one shouldn’t be enslaved by them. If you spend all your energy trying to make a perfect picture, you won’t be present to the event, just the image of it.

If you’re an adult with a family, it’s time to claim the holidays for your own. Create your own traditions. Invite others to join in, but don’t feel like you’re a slave to making things just to please other people. Yes, we want our guests and family to have a good time, as we would at any party, but your guests have a responsibility as well—to take things as they find them. One working mother I talked to is terribly upset because she doesn’t have the time to make the traditional Italian dishes her mother expects. What about asking her mother, who is retired and has time to contribute those? Her mother doesn’t have time? Then perhaps do without it this year.

The point is that the holidays are here to bring us joy. All of us. There are not two classes of celebrants—those who experience joy and those who are required to create it to the others’ specifications. Your holiday. Your terms. And remember, “No” is a complete sentence.

Try taking the time to celebrate what is, not what you wish could be, and you may discover that you’ll be less stressed and more joyful because of it. You’ll never make the perfect holiday, and unlike the kids’ pictures, you can’t retouch it later without a lot of denial and delusion.

Amid all the noise and expectations, there’s actually a Christmas song that bears listening to with new ears”

Christmas future is far away.
Christmas past is passed.
Christmas present is here today,
Bringing joy that may last.

None of us know the future, and we can’t repeat the past or revise it without a great spiritual cost. Today’s joy may last, or it may not, but its only chance is if it’s grounded in what’s real. Find the joy in that, and you may indeed have yourself a merry little Christmas (and the rest of the holidays for that matter).

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