Holidays often come with the pressure to entertain and be a “perfect” host. Being perfectionistic in the details of holiday planning, can ruin the fun for ourselves, as well as those around us. While most people are happy to be around friends or family, enjoying good food, drinks and the sight of kids opening gifts, for certain people, the thought of something being out of place, someone not getting their favorite dish or the decorations falling short, can cause significant feelings of distress. People who struggle with anxiety disorders, such as social anxiety or panic disorder, may be plagued by a fear of disappointing others, or feeling that their actions are being scrutinized and judged. This type of anxiety can cause an onslaught of “what if” thinking. What if my in-laws hate the food, what if the decorations fall apart, and on and on. These worries, cause tension that can spread throughout the household, as someone rushes to ensure that none of their “what if” thoughts happen. These individuals truly suffer, as the anxiety can put them in a fight or flight state, causing physiological changes, like heart palpitations, shortness of breath, or nausea. Often those around them are unaware of what’s happening inside their bodies, as all they see and hear is the flurry of worry and activity.
Similarly, for those who suffer from a specific category of OCD, known as perfectionism OCD, the thought that anything they do may turn out to be less than perfect, can cause significant distress, whether it be cooking a particular recipe, setting up holiday lights, or seating family around the table in the “perfect” arrangement. Someone with the clinical diagnosis of OCD, may avoid doing these things for fear of not doing them perfectly. Since any of us can have a streak of perfectionism, without having OCD, anyone may be affected by a lesser level of this type of stress. We may all be susceptible to a bit of perfectionism around the holidays, when media portrays so many images of the perfect holiday scene, from family, to food, to decorations and gift wrapping. It’s easy to see how anyone can get caught in the trap of striving for perfection. What’s critical during this time of year, is reminding ourselves that if doing less, brings more enjoyment for family and friends, as well as ourselves, than a good time should be the goal, rather than a perfect one, whatever that may mean.
Anyone struggling with perfectionism on a regular basis, causing significant distress, and interfering with daily life, should seek the help of a professional, ideally, a therapist specializing in the treatment of anxiety disorders and OCD with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) to build skills for tolerating uncertainty, as well life outcomes that are less than perfect.
About the Author
Nina Rifkind is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, ADAA Clinical Fellow and Graduate of the BTTI of the International OCD Foundation. Owner of Wellspring Counseling in NJ, she brings over 20 years of experience to her specialty, treating anxiety disorders and OCD, in children, adolescents and adults.