The following is a typical conversation I have with a friend each September:
"I'm feeling stressed," she says.
"Yup, getting the kids back to school sure is a lot of work," I reply.
She stares at me with a look of bewilderment. "Who's talking about school? I'm talking about the Christmas rush! I'm so behind already!"
I should have known. Julie, after all, is a Christmas perfectionist. Beginning on Boxing Day, she starts planning for next year's blowout, when everything -- this time -- will be Norman Rockwell perfect. Of course, the big day never turns out quite like her vision.
For some, pushing it to the max is a way to test their mettle. But many of us mere mortals don't find this kind of challenge thrilling. Instead of making the holidays magical, our zeal for perfection leaves us too stressed out to enjoy them. We have stress at work as well as at home, says Richard Earle, managing director of the Canadian Institute of Stress in Toronto. Add in the extra demands of a major holiday -- demands that constitute a third entire job as a producer, choreographer, set designer and caterer -- and it's no wonder we feel frazzled.
So what fuels this annual drive into overdrive? According to Paul Hewitt, a researcher at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver who has been studying the psychology of perfectionism for 15 years, perfectionists fall into three categories. There are those for whom high performance is motivated from within, those who go to the max in the hopes of pleasing others, and those who want people around them to conform to their standards.
At Christmastime all three types are bombarded with images and hype that may exacerbate their, er, natural tendencies. Throw family, social pressure and money -- all of which can be emotionally freighted -- into the mix and you have the ingredients for a perfectionist's perfect storm.
Don't despair. You can overcome the urge to do it all. Follow this easy-as-store-bought-pie advice for a relaxed (really!) holiday.
Strive for excellence instead of perfection. Excellence is achievable, perfection is not. Reframe your task, such as setting a beautiful table, not in terms of doing everything perfectly, but in terms of doing the best job you can. (It's OK if the red in the centrepiece isn't the exact colour of your upholstery.)
Shelve the shoulds. Do you hear imaginary voices from the past telling you what to do? Next time you hear the niggling commentary ("Grandma always made the shortbread from scratch, so you should, too!") focus instead on your current needs and desires. Do you, or your family and friends, really care if your entire house isn't dripping in decorations?
Reduce your to-do list. Write down at least three things that you always did in the past that you feel like you should do but that don't bring you any pleasure. For example, tying individual tartan bows to the staircase garland, making sure there are no two Christmas lights of the same colour in a row and matching the cocktail napkins to the hors d'oeuvre trays to the glass charms to the stir sticks. They probably don't need to be done, so forget about them.
Less is more. Really. My ladylike grandmother used to put on all her jewelry, then take off one piece to make sure she looked elegant, not ostentatious. This philosophy works for holiday decor, too. Plan your decorating scheme with all the jingle bells and whistles, then eliminate one entire category, perhaps Christmas-themed paper products such as toilet paper and tissue. You'll wind up with a swankier, more streamlined look with less effort.
Keep it simple. Do you tend to try complicated recipes with ingredients you can't pronounce (or identify) and begin ambitious crafts with 47 steps, then get annoyed with yourself when you run out of time or patience? By keeping it simple, you'll enjoy a holiday full of kisses, not chaos.
Change the colour scheme. Instead of red and green, think grey. Shades of grey, that is. Psychologists find that perfectionists tend to be all-or-nothing thinkers who see experiences as good or bad, with nothing in between. Instead, look for the middle ground. For example, do you envision an entire evening of singing carols by the fire? If your family sings for 60 seconds, congratulate yourself for your success even if no one remembers the words to "Good King Wenceslas."
Delegate. Many perfectionists tend to try to control everything. They don't even give others the chance to pitch in. That leaves slackers feeling a tad left out. When family members take over some of "your" tasks, you may be surprised by how eagerly they perform some of the chores you used to dread.
It's a wrap! Wrapping gifts can take hours and hours, especially if you're all thumbs. Get everything -- everything -- wrapped at the store. Or you could find a charity or a student who could use the work and hire her to wrap, fold and tie on your behalf. If you can't bear the thought of handing off this delicate task to others, go for gift bags instead of paper. A few twists of tissue paper and voilÃ !
Set time limits and stick to them. If you are sending out greeting cards, for example, you may have to forgo the fancy flourishes to get the job done in the allotted time -- or you may have to leave some recipients off your list. Leave the task when time is up, even though you know you can improve it. Sometimes "good enough" really is.
Drop the mop. Don't bother cleaning the house top to bottom. (Tell your guests we told you so.) It just gets messed up in a trice. Instead, spit polish the sinks so the chrome shines and put fresh towels in the bathroom. Then turn off all the house lights and let the fairy bulbs on the tree set the mood. Not even eagle-eyed Aunt Edie will be able to see the "frost" under the sofa.
Band together. Make a resolution not to overdo it this year. To help you stick to your commitment, form a support group with your best chum. Give each other practical help. For example, you can pick up some groceries for her when you go to the store, and in return she can bake you an extra dozen of her to-die-for lemon squares. Act as sounding boards by inviting each other to blow off steam and providing a reality check.
If you can't give up, then give in. Just choose only one thing to do flawlessly and make achieving it your goal. Trim the tree with a thousand silvery snowflakes, make homemade pine-scented candles or hand-knit Icelandic sweaters for everyone on your list. Then sit back and relax. There's always next year to think about, after all.