11/27/2012 05:15 pm ET Updated Jan 27, 2013

'Tis the Season to Be... Perfect?!

Despite the fact that we may tell ourselves, "The holidays are a time to appreciate what we have and enjoy the people in our lives," many are actually focusing on something else: being "perfect."

This can mean:

  • Having the home that is perfectly decorated.
  • Serving the meal that is perfectly cooked and presented.
  • Carrying on the family tradition perfectly because that is what you are "supposed" to do, even though you can't stand it
  • Being in a family that is perfectly happy and always getting along.
  • Giving the perfect gifts to our children, friends, co-workers.
  • Appearing to be perfect on the outside (despite the turmoil on the inside).

For all you perfectionists out there, here is my question: This holiday season, would you rather be perfect or be happy? I ask this as both a psychologist and recovering perfectionist.

As a recovering perfectionist, I can see how my "need" to ensure perfection in each and every aspect of the season adversely affected my previous holidays. In my mind, I felt it was absolutely necessary to have thousands of fancy, outdoor holiday decorations adorning every tree in the yard. I believed the holidays would be ruined if I did not cook the perfect Christmas dinner. And I was certain that if I did not capture the cutest picture of my kids on the holiday card, it would be a disaster. As a result of my focus on perfection, I missed out on opportunities to enjoy this special time.

As a psychologist, I see most of my clients' stress levels increase each year as the holidays approach. In addition to the daily demands already taxing their time, energy and thoughts, the holidays pile more on their plate. Or, perhaps more aptly put, my clients put more on their plate because of the holidays.

This holiday season, allow yourself the gift of happiness, by not striving for perfection. That means giving yourself a break about having to do everything perfectly, and instead focus on ways you and your loved ones can truly enjoy this time. I ask you to stop and consider how you will choose to manage your stress and, in turn, your expectations. Let me give you some examples.

Stressed out about making the perfect meal (or meals)? Solicit assistance. Ask guests to bring over a dish. Have guests help out in the kitchen -- they are usually hanging out there, anyway. Use the services of your friendly grocery store or restaurant. Simplify and stop worrying. I mean, do you really need to have nine different choices for side dishes?

Financially strapped and worried about not being able to buy your children the gifts they are begging to have? Sure, it can be very gratifying to give your child what he/she so desires, and to see their happy faces light up. If you limit this to a few meaningful gifts, it will make each one more special. This is also a terrific time to remember that, no matter how great the toy, happiness is not something we can buy. By teaching your child the skills of happiness in their early years, you are giving them a gift they will benefit from forever.

Are there family holiday traditions you have accepted even though they do not make sense? I had a client with four young children who would become terribly overwhelmed before the holidays every year because she had to travel to both sets of her children's grandparents' houses -- and they lived 200 miles apart! When I asked her why she had to do this, she blurted out, "Because I have no choice!" Rather than doing what she thought she should do, we found ways to reduce her stress and allow her to enjoy the day. She decided to invite both sets of grandparents over to their house that holiday, and have the main meal catered.

Do you find you lack confidence more this time of year? In reference to my client above, she and I worked on her self-confidence as well, so when her mother-in-law rolled her eyes at the fact that my client had not made the entire meal from scratch, my client focused on what a good mother and wife she was being by reducing her stress and focusing on enjoying her time with her family instead of making the perfect holiday meal.

Does spending time with your extended family drive you over the edge? We know family interactions are a common source of stress over the holidays. For many, resentment over an event years ago poisons their interactions. This anger is another sign of perfectionism: anger that someone else is not perfect, and therefore makes your family not perfect. Despite how the mistake impacted your life, the fact remains: There is nothing you can do about the past. However, changing how you allow it to affect your present and future is a choice you have. This holiday season, practice forgiveness. Forgiveness is saying, "I accept that you are not perfect and that you messed up. I choose to let go of my desire to change the past. I choose to focus on moving forward and being happier." You will be surprised at how much this will improve your family interactions -- during the holidays and beyond.

So, this year, give yourself a gift: Focus on happiness rather than perfection this holiday season. When you are happier, not only will your family be happier too, you will also experience improved physical health, better relationships, more positive energy, greater productivity and you will actually find yourself enjoying the holiday season.

So, go for it -- make it a genuinely happy holiday season.

For more by Dr. Elizabeth Lombardo, click here.

For more on holiday stress, click here.