If you’re a self-described perfectionist, chances are the sound of jingle bells makes you a little bit nervous. Whether it’s your quest to find the perfect gift, the need to capture the perfect family moment or the desire to cook the perfect meal, the overwhelming drive to make sure everything goes according to plan is often at its peak during the holidays.
So how do you ease up on your perfectionism during such an important time? The solution isn’t about giving up control but forming a plan that works for you, says Michelle Carlstrom, senior director of the office of work, life and engagement at Johns Hopkins University.
“I would never say [to someone focused on perfection] to let go of control entirely, because having control is often what makes perfectionists feel calm,” Carlstrom tells The Huffington Post. “But there are so many moving pieces in the holiday marathon that you cannot have control over, you have to understand what you can manage and what you can’t.”
Luckily, there are ways to manage your need for control — without sacrificing your sanity. Below are a few ways to help manage your perfectionism at the holidays:
1. Prioritize and delegate each task.
When it comes to a full holiday calendar, Carlstrom says those who have a tendency toward perfectionism need to set boundaries and prioritize.
“Whatever it is that you do, put your plan in place by thinking about what’s most important to you,” she said. “Is it socializing and holiday events? Is it family time? If you pick out the most important thing to you during the holiday season and how you work that in, you can remain in control of those parameters you set for yourself.”
Delegating responsibilities — whether it’s someone to help with the cooking or with setting up the party — can also help perfectionists let go without losing a sense of control.
“Planning for what you’re going to do and not do helps establish boundaries,” she explained. “Often times [perfectionists] manage too many commitments, but this way you still feel like you do maintain some control.”
2. Don’t overdo it.
In order to manage holiday stress, it’s important to have a plan in place — but be wary of going overboard. The challenge of putting up the perfect decorations or committing to too many holiday parties can trigger a perfectionist to break down, says Scott Bea, a clinical psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic. Avoidance behavior, he says, is common when perfectionists try to picture each task.
“Perfectionists have a hard time starting something if they need a perfect outcome,” Bea told The Huffington Post. “If they can’t visualize the perfect end result, they’ll often start avoiding it altogether. Then things start to pile up and tasks mount.”
Establishing boundaries and only taking on a reasonable amount of work is the best way to tackle these tasks head on. “Holidays have so much to do with planning but not overcommitting — being able to say no without guilt is important,” Carlstrom said.
3. Mull over the reaction you want to have ― then forget the idea entirely.
If finding the ideal gift for your partner, family or friends feels like some sort of test, it can be a sign of perfectionism. Bea suggests mentally identifying what the consequences would be if things don’t end up perfect — chances are, they aren’t so bad.
“You can’t screw up giving a gift, if it’s an occasion or a material gift, if it’s coming from your heart you can’t possibly make a mistake,” he said.
According to Carlstrom, it’s important to remember that the perfect present — and the reaction to the thought behind that gift — likely isn’t going to make or break your relationship.
“You can control your intentions as you look for a gift, but you can never control someone’s response to a gift,” she explained.
The same goes for family dynamics. According to Carlstrom, the potential for conflict or negative reactions from loved ones often creates more pressure. The best way to manage those stressors is to face them head on and go into it with an understanding that you’re not alone.
“We have in our minds that during the holidays we need to have the perfect family experience — but all of us have dysfunctions,” she said. “Managing relationships is difficult, especially with people you might only see a few times a year.”
4. Acknowledge the good.
Another way to get over the idea of perfectionism during the holidays is to focus on gratitude. Expressing what you’re thankful for is an effective way to channel the good surrounding the occasion and can open the mind up for a healthier thought process — both crucial in letting go of stressful feelings commonly associated with perfectionism.
Bea suggests writing down what you’re thankful for as a way to train the brain to be more receptive to positive thoughts.
“A gratitude journal can help [perfectionists] notice what’s right about their efforts and the world,” he said. “The brain is designed to notice what’s wrong first — even if everything looks right [perfectionists] will notice one thing out of place. Sensitizing to what’s going right can help them lose that sense of perfection.”
5. Try some new traditions.
With the same meals and events, it can be difficult to let go of the idea of perfection — especially when you start comparing them to previous years.
Incorporating new traditions this year may help ease perfectionism during the holidays. Bea explains that making a change from the usual holiday events can help you shift into a more easy-going mentality.
“Perfectionists try to maintain tradition, so they can experiment and train themselves for flexibility [through change],” he said.
Bea also advises perfectionists to recall a time that made them feel free — chances are it was a time when they weren’t in control of the moment. By starting a new tradition and introducing flexibility, overall satisfaction — in holiday planning and beyond — will increase.
“Human beings like control but we don’t have much of it — people just like the illusion,” he explained. “Most good times occur when control is loose. Practicing new habits and giving up control can lead to greater feelings of well-being.”
A previous version of this article appeared in November 2013.