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This Holiday Season, Strive to Be Present, Not Perfect

Released: 12/11/2013 11:00 AM EST
Source Newsroom: Family Institute at Northwestern University
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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. Dr. Mary Doheny, PhD and licensed clinical psychologist at The Family Institute at Northwestern University, is available to comment on the psychological issues surrounding the pressures for holiday perfection.

“Perfection is ubiquitous in our culture,” says Dr. Doheny, “and I think it 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, including Dr. Doheny, 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,” says Dr. Doheny. “Life is messy and ridiculous and can’t be controlled — my position is, why not laugh? Disasters in the kitchen or during the celebration make for great stories and hilarious memories that connect loved ones.”

Dr. Doheny offers tips for letting go of perfectionism and being 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.

To contact Dr. Mary Doheny about the holidays and perfectionism, please contact Colleen O’Connor at coconnor@family-institute.org or 312-609-5300, ext. 485. For more information about The Family Institute, please visit http://www.family-institute.org/.

ABOUT THE FAMILY INSTITUTE AT NORTHWESTERN UNIVERSITY - The Family Institute at Northwestern University (www.family-institute.org) is committed to strengthening and healing families from all walks of life through clinical service, education and research. An affiliate of Northwestern University, The Family Institute is a unique, innovative not-for-profit organization, governed by its own independent Board of Directors and responsible for its own funding. The Institute offers a wide range of high quality mental health counseling through our staff practice and our sliding-fee scale Bette D. Harris Family and Child Clinic, where we are committed to serving at-risk, under-resourced communities. The Family Institute also operates two nationally-renowned graduate programs in marriage and family therapy and counseling psychology in affiliation with Northwestern University, and conducts cutting edge research projects that lead to a better understanding and treatment of mental health issues.

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