Spare a thought for us perfectionists at Christmas

I think it was someone like film director James Cameron who was once quoted as saying,

“People call me a perfectionist, but I’m not. I am a rightist. I do something until it is right, then I move on to the next thing.”

Ha. I had to chuckle, as I thought of how true this felt to me. I definitely identify with all the traits of a perfectionist. Fixated. Obsessed. Tunnel-visioned. Troubled. Anxious. Pressured. Self-doubting. Hypercritical. Fidgety. Frustrated. Even angry.

I thought I’d write you a wee blog post about what this supposedly ebullient joyful time of year feels like to a self-confessed perfectionist. Let us spare a thought for these people for whom it is not so much joyful, as even-more-stressful than the rest of the year.

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Perfectionism could be thought of in many ways, both good and bad, but I simply like to define it as:

Perfectionism: the obsessive attention to detail where nobody else cares.

This niggling, time-consuming trait holds me back at work, in creative projects, at home, in relationships, in social situations. The ugly ogre takes over. It is the Perfectionist gene. “I want things to be righter than I know they can ever hope to be.” Many people (whom I greatly admire) seem to possess that ability to just gliiiide over things and rattle off lots of things quickly and with decisiveness.

Not me.

Let me explain how our brains work. Achieving speed or arriving at quick solutions do not seem to factor into our equation. Instead, perfectionists set ideals, vivid and elaborate (complex) pictures in their minds of how exactly they want something to look, or to be. The degree of finish is everything. We cannot seem to stop until that unrealistic ideal has been even remotely approached. And the bar can be quite high. And we never seem to get there. For us, the words, “Oh! That’ll DO!” (said in a flustered, frustrated way) are completely anathema to us. We HATE “that’ll do” – because it implies we have given up on that image of perfection we painted in our heads.

But more than that I think we actually like Putting In The Effort. We enjoy it, at least in the beginning. I can’t imagine rolling out of bed on any morning and not showering or wearing makeup or going for exercise or writing any Christmas cards or making any party food or putting up a Christmas tree. THAT would feel like a massive failure on my part. One December (after giving birth) I was having an almost epileptic fit meltdown in the shops because I was on the brink of ‘just having to buy’ my Christmas cards. I got to the shop, already feeling sad and disappointed that I was resorting to shop-bought, had a pack of factory-produced foil cards in my hand and then the Creative Renegade in me boomed out of the deepest recesses of my breast-feeding, haggard soul:

“YOU CAN’T DO THAT!!! WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!! THESE SHOP-BOUGHT CARDS ARE TOTALLY AVERAGE AND NOWHERE NEAR AS GOOD AS WHAT YOU REALLY WANT TO SEND! GO HOME AND DESIGN YOUR OWN!!”

So I went straight home and hastily designed, printed and sent my own. Phew. Extra work.

There is lots of pressure piled on at Christmas; extra pressure above and beyond what we normally give ourselves in the other 11 months of daily life. Here are some:

  • Social events
  • Hosting parties
  • Appearances / health / beauty
  • Christmas cards
  • Christmas presents
  • Wrapping Christmas presents
  • Christmas food / menus / drinks
  • Home decorating, e.g. Christmas trees
  • Then of course there is the BIG DAY ITSELF.

For a perfectionist, each and every one of those items piles on extra pressure. Everything has to be in place for the perfect occasion.
The house must look like the finishing touches have been added, festive flourishes that only you will notice considered months ago; décor must be tasteful and seasonal. Remember this is not just any old house anymore, this is a festive and tasteful and seasonal CHRISTMASSY house.
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The cards have to be perfect, the handwriting has to be perfect (I stress about maintaining neat and consistently-coloured handwriting standards throughout), there can’t be any blotches or spelling mistakes or late deliveries. Some people don’t care if you don’t check their name or title or postcode. I greatly care.

Presents have to be perfect. I can’t shop quickly. I am forever worrying if the gift is just right and whether other people will actually like the thing I am going to get them. Does it suit them? Will they use it? Like it? Appreciate it? Think I am cheap or have no taste? – I am the world’s slowest browser, I truly gift-shop at the rate of a snail, and probably take about 4 hours to buy just 3 gifts. I can’t just go, “Oh! That’ll DO!” and rush into any old shop and do a smash-and-grab. It’s just not me.

The wrapping paper round the presents is a big deal and has to be thought out as a scheme in itself, it has to be matching and neat and like some thought has gone into it. In fact it is one of the first things I think about. (This year’s scheme is Frozen-inspired by the way. Icy Nordic pastel colours. Sad. Moi?) I want my presents to others to look perfect! (Listen to me swearing along to Carols From King’s as my hand does cat’s cradle with the Sellotape at 3pm on Christmas Eve. B*****!)

Keeping up appearances of joviality and looking like you are on sparkling party form add to the perfectionist’s bedtime worries. Way back into November do I start thinking about how many chemicals and powders I am going to have to buy to look as good as possible. It’s Christmas. I…Must…Appear…Perfect. I sometimes forget that what people want is to chat to you, not care how you look, what lipstick you have on or what you are wearing on your feet.

Does my a**e look huge in THIS?

I stress like anything about Christmas luggage packing, too. I have been known to make spreadsheets many weeks in advance, just to control and decide perfectly what is the best and most complete list of items to pack for every eventuality of the Christmas break. Outfits are laid out and tried to be coordinated with some matching accessories (maybe will I go with an aqua-turquoise theme this year?), and a huge and thorough list of My Best Toiletries is evaluated for Christmas-worthiness and packed about a week in advance. I worry about which scents to pack in my limited suitcase space; which one sends out the right Christmassy smell for each of the various occasions one might be presented with over the Festive Period. I want to feel festive. I want to SMELL festive. I just can’t bear to have missed something or forgotten something. Not a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants type girl, I could never just messily stuff an old jumper, spare pants and socks and my toothbrush in a rucksack and be done with it. Phew! I’m feeling stressed just thinking about this element of 25 December already!

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I get panicked and irrationally upset about potential catastrophes like WHAT IF WE RUN OUT OF ICE!! <Takes inhaler.> What will the guests think? How can they even stomach a gin and tonic if it’s, well, warm!??! The world will collapse and the party will be ruined and they’ll possibly de-friend me! (Maybe I should work in The Savoy or something…) – I forget that drinks and parties should be about spontaneous fun and ‘live a little’; not needlessly fixated on some hotel-style, Christmas-lifestyle-magazine-inspired image of perfection. Yes, I buy too many style magazines. Hopeless ideals of non-reality again!

 

IMG_9916And I start visibly quaking every time I open Waitrose December edition of food / expensive party canapés to make. Argh! The pressure. What can I do? What isn’t a total cop-out? I know I could go down to Tesco and buy some sausage rolls and tubes of Pringles, but that would be sh*t and not even very Christmassy, so I know I probably won’t. I’ll sit up all night while everyone is relaxing and having fun, up to my elbows in ruler-measured squares of smoked salmon and fannying about with whiskers of dill (applied with tweezers), cursing and swearing that it all looks like Christmas Celebrity Masterchef: the Comedy Edition. God I can hardly wait!

But then again, I have been chatting with friends recently and we are all pretty much in agreement that we busy adults and now some of us parents of children risk spending so much time fretting over all of this preparatory work for THE BIG DAY that we forget to have any fun at all. It should be fun. It should be about the sharing of relaxed, informal times with friends and family and to hell with what anything really looks like! [Note to self: Will Santa get enough to eat? Remember to make sure he gets the perfect midnight snack and drink. What will he think of me?? – Good. LORD.]

But we perfectionists sometimes forget. We get so focused on some totally inconsequential minor detail (such as the colour of the coordinating ribbon I still have to buy to go round the Christmas cake I still haven’t iced! help!) that we forget that none of this really matters and nobody will really care when they come round to eat it.

BUT PERFECTIONISTS DON’T THINK LIKE THAT.

We are obsessive.

We are compulsive.

We are desperate to impress.

I think we are quite visual people.

We are scared of f***ing up.

We think all eyes are watching us and are judging us on our efforts.

ARRRRRRGGHHHHH!!!!!!!

In short, it really sucks being a Perfectionist!
We take it all Far. Too. Seriously. I have been found sobbing and pummelling my fists into the grass in the garden outside on the eve of my own wedding, because it was all too much; I had given myself too many intricate tasks to do in the almost exponentially vanishing timescales and I knew I was going to Fail. We HATE FAILURE.

For this reason, perfectionists aren’t always welcomed in many environments, particularly in business-related ‘fast performance’ related tasks where a fixed outcome must be delivered acceptably on time. Acceptable is a horrible word for us; we expect exceptional, and that is what keeps us going…and going…and going……..

We can frustrate the whole team; from my experience of doing these types of jobs, we can be overly-thorough but cause unnecessary hold-ups.

And socially, yes, I can see hostesses with the mostesses just ruining what should be a fun, relaxed event by coming into a party with a sour face – why? – because they thought something hadn’t been perfect. In reality, we, the other guests, hadn’t even noticed. I suppose the lesson there is to try and remember that we should at Christmas time just try and have fun (and BE fun) regardless of what has or hasn’t happened “behind the scenes”.

But there is a place for perfectionism. I like looking at the work of… (here’s some examples) e.g.:

Florists.

Cake makers.

Dress makers.

Film makers. (*I like the story of famously, Peter Jackson, who took so many painstaking years to deliver his Lord of the Rings films, in almost mind-boggling levels of detail.)

Illustrators.

Interior designers.

Photographers.

The makers and designers of all the brilliant and original gifts you buy each other for Christmas.

Well, I guess Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas at all without perfectionists in the world, eh?!

Merry Christmas!

Annie xx

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