An old proverb states, “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” While I think that is true, my personal version is more like, “The perfect is the enemy of the happy.”
You see, my anxiety is shot through with perfectionism. If I don’t make the perfect comment to a friend or a stranger, I will stress about it for hours. If the pants I’m wearing aren’t the perfect length, I’ll feel them flapping around my ankles all day. (Happily, sleeves can be rolled up in a perfectly casual way.) If I plan out my perfect day and something doesn’t get accomplished, then I have failed and I can feel the burden of an imperfect future press in on me.
Details like this, a spoken word, an outfit, a schedule, have the power to ruin my happiness.
And this is why for the past decade Christmas has been a day to dread rather than one to enjoy. Because Christmas needs to be perfect, and the perfect is the enemy of the happy.
I have great memories of Christmas from my childhood. Waking up and seeing those glistening presents under the tree, spending the day playing with my cousins, eating the feast my mother cooked for us. No other day of the year could compete with it. It really was the most wonderful time of the year.
Then, when I got married and moved into my own house, I noticed Christmas began feeling a little… flat. I couldn’t understand why. I still went to my mother’s house to be greeted by a beautiful stack of presents, I still visited with family, I still ate a delicious meal. What had gone wrong?
And then I became a mom. And suddenly Christmas was no fun at all. There were presents under the tree, and family, and good food. But I waded through it in misery, wanting to do nothing but go home and go to bed so it could all be over.
Now that I have a better handle on my anxiety and have had the chance to look at it more objectively I can see exactly what went wrong. It starts with this: in my mind, my mother does no wrong. She is the essence of perfect. When I was a kid, I was living in that perfect world. She bought and wrapped the presents, she invited the family over, she made the dinner. All I had to do was enjoy and be happy.
But when I grew up, some of that responsibility shifted my way. I was responsible. It was up to me to make things perfect. Because Christmas has to be perfect. After all, it is the most wonderful time of the year.
For those first few years, the anxiety was minor. Had I bought the right gift? Maybe I should have gotten my dad a new book instead of a golf shirt? Did anyone really enjoy the salad I brought for dinner? I noticed an awful lot of it still on people’s plates at the end of the meal. I thought I looked good in my red sweater this morning, but now, no, it definitely is too tight to wear with these pants.
I don’t even know if I can go into my thoughts once I was the mom who needed to make the perfect day: the perfect presents, the most glorious tree, the well-worded Christmas cards, the homemade treats for family and friends, and on Christmas day, the non-stop wonderland of family, present opening, and food. I would burn my candle at both ends and in the middle, pushing myself to the point of nervous collapse by the end of it all. I couldn’t enjoy anything because I was in charge of making not just the day but the entire month magical for my child and nothing, nothing ended up as perfect as I wanted it to be.
But this year, Christmas is going to be a happy day.
For one, I am on medication this year, and it blunts the perfectionism a little. For example, I realized after I had left the house today that my pants really were too short for the shoes I had changed into. I managed to only be bothered by it three or four times while I was gone.
Two, I have discovered the benefits of “thought-watching.” Thought-watching is kind of like meditation, only you aren’t trying to still your mind, you’re trying to watch your mind from a place of detachment. How it was taught to me is to picture a room with two doors. It doesn’t matter what the room looks like, you can decorate it any way you want to. Then you sit in a quiet place and every thought that comes into your mind you imagine the actual words or a picture of it entering the room. You don’t evaluate it, you don’t judge it, you just watch it. When it feels ready or gets replaced with something else, the thought leaves through the other door.
Doing this simple exercise for just a few minutes each day has helped me gain insight into my own thoughts. It helps me identify the irrational and the impossible thoughts that pop into my mind, the ones that told me I was supposed to be happier than I was or the day didn’t resemble a Martha Stewart magazine as much as I had hoped. Those can’t sneak in like assassins anymore. Sure, they can still be damaging, but at least I can confront them head-on now rather than getting shot in the back by one.
And three, I have a new mantra, “Perfect is a lie.” I made this startling realization just before last Christmas. And I have to admit, last December was a little bit better than the previous years. I’ve been working on believing it more and more since then. Whenever my thought-watching catches that disapproving voice telling me something isn’t perfect, I shoot right back at it. “Perfect is a lie.”
So I say to hell with perfect this year. This year, nothing will be perfect. I will officially be anti-perfect. And hopefully, I may just end up happy this holiday season.
We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.
Thinkstock photo by eyewave