Surviving the Holidays with Chronic Pain as a Recovering Perfectionist (AKA There is No Way I’m Sending Holiday Cards This Year, or Wait, Maybe I Am)

I have a confession to make. I have not sent out holiday cards for several years. I’m not even sure how long. There has been at least one year that I got them printed and did not send them. I’m pretty sure I got them printed a few years ago, and I’m pretty sure I sent them, but I can’t be certain. That was when my twins were 3 months old, and for any parent, especially one of multiples, nearly everything in those first few months is a blur. But I know I have not sent them out in several years. Do I feel guilty? A little. Do I look at the holiday cards of friends and family members in great appreciation and admiration? Yes, I do. Do I also think, “stop showing off” if your cards arrive the day after Thanksgiving? Maybe a little. (Really, though, I love how organized you are). 

In a perfect world, I would send out holiday cards to each and every one of my friends and family each year. It’s a great way for far away relatives and friends to see how the kids are growing up, let people know you are thinking of them, and generally bring about a sense of gratitude for all of the people who have touched our lives over the years. However, I have three small kids, have just launched my independent therapy practice, and am a recovering perfectionist. I also have this really handy back and neck pain that tells me in no uncertain terms when I am doing too much.

Many of us fall into the classic holiday trap of trying to make everything perfect for our families — the right gifts, the right meals, the right decorations ... it gets exhausting. As a recovering perfectionist, I get it. The idea of a perfect holiday is alluring, but at what cost? Often, the cost is our health. So how do you stay healthy and sane during the holidays? I’ve found the following tips helpful both for myself and my clients.

  1. Scale back.

    Depending on your physical or mental state or caregiving responsibilities, you may not have the same capabilities that you did in previous years, or, you might find that you would like to lower your stress level this year. Doesn’t that sound nice? Take a moment to look at your to-do list. Is everything totally necessary? Just because you have always made seven types of cookies does not mean you have to do that every year. Maybe your one or two favorites are enough. Or maybe just buy some. 

  2. Pace yourself.

    Do not wrap all the presents and bake all the cookies on one day. Ask me how I know.

  3. Let people help (even if they do it different from you).

    My eight-year-old loves wrapping presents. She gets a bit “creative” in how she wraps. There is a lot of tape involved. I see it as a sign of personal growth that I am able to let her wrap presents without my eye twitching. I actually have come to enjoy her deconstructed interpretation of gift-wrapping.

  4. View your home through others’ eyes.

    Usually I don’t advise people to pay too much attention to what others think, except when it comes to housecleaning. If you are stressing out/in pain, only clean what people can see. You may know that your ceiling fan needs dusting, but I promise no one is going to look up at the ceiling and say, “When’s the last time you cleaned that thing?” When you think about the things you need to do, consider that while you may know some things are dusty or have not been cleaned in a while, people coming into your home have no idea, unless they can see it. No one will know that you have not vacuumed under the couch in the past 6 months, unless they go looking under there (which would be weird, by the way). In that case, hand them a vacuum and ask them to get the dust bunnies while they are down there. 

  5. Space it out.

    New Year’s cards, anyone? My husband suggests Martin Luther King Jr. Day cards, but I think it will be a while before that catches on. Even shifting your timeline for sending out holiday cards to New Year’s day, week, or month, can help you pace your way through the holidays. Plus, the Post Office will be far less crowded after Christmas. Sure, some people might judge you for this (though I hope not), but if people judge you for sending out New Year’s cards, they probably have some issues going on bigger than your New Year’s cards. Also, pro-tip: I have learned that you can usually skip a year or three before you are off people’s list permanently, and then it’s super easy to get back on -- just send them a card (sorry again, friends and family!).

  6. Remember what is important about the holidays.

    This probably will get a bit cheesy, but stay with me... take a moment to think about what is important to you about the holidays. Is it being with friends and family? Generosity to those less fortunate? Making beautiful things? A fresh start in the new year? Gratitude for your blessings and the people who have been a part of your life? Relaxation and fun? Something else? When you have found the thing or things most important to you, ask yourself if your to-do list matches up with those values. If not, give yourself the grace to let go of the things that do not match.

Chronic pain sucks. Anxiety sucks. But, sometimes when these things come into our lives, they can help us take a look at our priorities. I have come to view my neck and back pain as a tool to help me know when I need to take a step back. Do I wish I didn’t have it? Absolutely! Do I know how lucky I am that I can still work and parent in spite of my pain? Yes, I do. But slowly, I am coming to appreciate the lessons that it teaches. Over the years I have found that being forced to change how you do things makes you get really focused on the most important things. It can even change you from perfectionist to recovering perfectionist. So, happy holidays to my neck and back pain. Thank you for helping me live a more fulfilling life. And happy holidays to you, dear reader. I hope you have holidays filled with whatever is most important to you.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Erin Brandel Dykhuizen, MA, MSW, LICSW is a psychotherapist who offers counseling for adults with PTSD, trauma symptoms, and chronic pain in St. Paul, Minnesota. She also works with individuals via remote, online counseling throughout the state of Minnesota. You can schedule an appointment and learn more about Erin’s Twin Cities therapy practice at erinbdlicsw.com, or reach Erin by phone at 651-998-8991.