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This Holiday Season, Strive to Be Present, Not Perfect

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This time of year, we are inundated with images of the perfect holiday season in books, in magazines, on television and in movies. These messages show us that the holidays are a significant, special time that demands perfection — a time when unattainable standards should be met: perfect meals, homemade gifts, Christmas cards and letters that summarize a year of growth and success, impeccable decorations, maintaining one’s figure in the midst of culinary excess … the list goes on and on.

However, life doesn’t function that way — a child gets sick, the cat knocks over the tree, the turkey burns and families argue. Striving for holiday perfection often ends in shame since everyday life makes perfection an impossible, unattainable goal. Today’s tips on how to avoid this quest for perfection come from Dr. Mary Doheny, PhD and licensed clinical psychologist at The Family Institute at Northwestern University.


Flour everywherePerfection is ubiquitous in our culture and especially afflicts women. Psychologists believe that people strive for perfection in an effort to avoid and/or minimize shame, judgment and blame: Perfection is born of shame, and the belief that our authentic, flawed selves are not worthy of love and respect. However, psychologists believe the opposite is true: We feel actual love and acceptance when we unabashedly show our shortcomings and vulnerabilities — when we let others see us in all our fragility, insecurity and ineptness and we stop trying to be perfect.

Trying to do a good job is different than perfectionism, which relies on unattainable standards and impossible goals. To truly do your best you need to forgive your flaws. Life is messy and ridiculous and can’t be controlled — so why not laugh? Disasters in the kitchen or during the celebration make for great stories and hilarious memories that connect loved ones.

The following tips offer ways to let go of perfectionism and stay present during the holiday season:

  • Monitor your stress and scale back when you realize you’re not having fun. If you feel stressed and exhausted, that’s a signal that something is wrong and it’s time to scale back.
  • Emphasize the experiences and the specific moments of the holidays and stay mindful — don’t try to control them and/or other people in your life.
  • Don’t seek your validation from others and remind yourself that you are good enough.
  • Remember to stop and play — ask someone else to bring the pie so you can take time to enjoy yourself.



Mary Donhey, PhD, is a staff therapist at The Family Institute at Northwestern University where she sees clients at our downtown Chicago location. To read her full bio or make an appointment, please visit our website.

The Family Institute offers affordable, effective mental health treatment for families, couples and individuals. Learn more about what we do on our website.


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