Why so scared that you’ll mess it up
When perfection keeps you haunted?
All you need is your best, my love,
That’s all anyone ever wanted.
In 2012, Sara Bareilles received Christmas song “Love is Christmas” which featured those lyrics, and I cry every time I hear it.
Sara captivated me in 2007 with the release of Little Voice, perhaps best known to the public for the track “Love Song.” I had heard the backstory before I heard the song itself. Sara, frustrated with her record label’s refusal to proceed with the production of the record, composed the song she described as “nasty in a passive-aggressive way.” Her passion for her art and unwillingness to cave to what others expected of her, as exemplified by that song, attracted me immediately and I became a fan.
So when in 2012 I first heard Sara sing those lyrics, it felt as a dear friend speaking directly to me. “I know your perfectionism and desire to please others, James. I know the pain it causes you. Let it go. We don’t need it. All we want is the best you can give.”
It possesses a poignancy that other songs with a similar theme might lack because of the context: Christmas. I’m, well, not quite indifferent to most of the year. I appreciate the changing of the seasons and, much as I love autumn and winter, could not appreciate any without the others.
For me, Christmas begins on November 1 with Thanksgiving serving as the amuse-bouche. One of the highlights of my Thanksgiving as a child was the parade in Philadelphia (on ABC, so it was also Disney-heavy), that culminated with the arrival of Santa. We would end the evening with a family viewing of a Christmas movie. Thanksgiving heralded Christmas.
Christmas is the time of the year that I fall in love with the world because it still represents in my heart the perfection, innocence, and love of humanity. Sure, plenty of people are still absolute scoundrels, even emboldened by the materialistic aspects of the season to be worse, but the season itself represents all of those wonderful things. It’s a manifestation of the quiet place where I retreat inside myself when combating my anxiety.
The thing for which it provides little respite is my personality disorder: obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (OCPD) to be exact. I wrote before about its distinction as a personality disorder – not a disorder of obsessive and/or compulsive action, as one finds with OCD, a more commonly known disorder, and related conditions within the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, but rather a disorder of obsessive and/or compulsive thought.
Within the realm of personality disorder, psychologists (as of the DSM-V), recognise three clusters. OCPD belongs to the third cluster, broadly characterised by anxiety and fear (as opposed to Cluster A – paranoia – and Cluster B – anti-social). While I am not anti-social, I am an introvert with social anxiety. I have an obsessive-compulsive mind. Everything occurs through that filter, which is, on the surface, highly logical.
The obsession is with order, rules, and organisation. Those who follow my blog or social media feed are familiar with my preoccupation with the social contract. This is not a vague notion of our implicit agreement as fellow citizens, it’s a vivid code of conduct to which we all must adhere if we are to be good citizens.
Considered another way, I look at the aether of ‘others’ in the world and preoccupy myself with thoughts of how we best ought to get along in this life. With a specific person, I have to confront the pragmatism of their existence. People violate the social contract constantly in ways big and small. I violate it myself, and I beat myself up over that point. Along with my introversion and social anxiety, it makes relationships difficult to sustain.
This Christmas as people gather with family and friends, I will confront how comparatively alone I feel in the world. I have a wonderful, loving family and a small (elite, if you will) group of friends, so it’s not despair, though others dealing with OCPD may find that at this time of year. For me it will be a matter of seeing friends gathered at parties, simultaneously glad that I am not in the midst of it and frustrated with myself that I failed so severely with the social contract that no one misses me there.
Because the idea of this social contract, the governing dynamic in my life, is that the individual should be free to be the individual, up to the point that it intersects with someone else’s access to that same liberty and agency. It creates within me a whirlwind of contradiction.
I can be indifferent to how others feel about a particular thing, because the rules and logic of it matter more; yet I am acutely attuned to the feelings of others because those rules exist to maximise the experience of life for everyone. I am a workaholic to the neglect of relationships because productivity and excellence in my work, for me, is the foundation of my value to others. I work to help others and in doing so neglect my closest relationships. I am overconscientious about granting others leave to freedom; I am vigilant against stubborness.
At Christmas, the most perfect time of year in my heart, I struggle most fiercely to balance my mind. The sharpness of my duality intensifies and I apply more pressure on myself to be better. I become more self aware of all the ways in which I am failing the people around me, not on a level of executing, let’s call them professional obligations to others, but on a level of interpersonal attentiveness.
“You need someone to take care of that? I like you. I will gladly take ownership of that task and make sure it gets done for you. It will be done well and efficiently.”
“No, James. I do want someone to take care of that, but we’re friends and what I want most from you, especially this time of year, is you,” I feel them saying with their looks and deep breaths and actions. “Our relationship is not contingent on you running errands and doing favours. It is contingent on our continuing to cultivate a relationship by being together.”
I hear them in my heart, and then in my OCPD-riddled mind, seeking to find a way to satisfy that, turn to the logical, to the things I can control. Christmas, a season of joy and giving, is also a season of deadlines and objectives. We have to organise these events with only so much time available. No, I cannot attend your gathering, I am far too busy attempting to organise things for people to do.
No one will see me cry, save perhaps my wife. This is not a masculine thing for me (men ought to be able to cry openly), but a matter of control and perfection. One cannot see me crying, not because I am a man and men don’t cry but because one does not need me dampening the joy of the season with sense of despondence, longing, and failure that swells inside me.
You see a lovely person, a perfect gentleman perhaps. I see all of the mistakes and failures that you are choosing to overlook out of niceness. I see lack of accountability. I look at the people that mean the most to me and feel inadequate in that lack of accountability, finding myself unworthy of the few relationships I have, sustained despite myself by their deep caring.
Every year at Christmas I find myself in some quiet place, introspecting about this and the year. I look at the good as well as the bad. There is despondence, longing, and a sense of failure, but also hope that in my awareness of these things I can improve with the coming year. Then another wave of anxious doubt, “You have not improved before, so why would that change now?”
Every year at Christmas I find myself in some quiet place and think, “Why so scared that you’ll mess it up when perfection keeps you haunted. All you need is your best. That’s all anyone ever wants.” I look at the people who matter most and resolve that to be the person I think they want me to be, that they need me to be, I need to let go and be the person I am.
And every year gets better.