Perfectionism: From Fairy Tale to Real Life

So, I recently had an interesting weekend. While I would like to say that my weekends are all about leisure, sometimes leisure activities can be a little—er—unleisurely, particularly if one’s sense of self is on the line.

Hobby, Meet Perfectionism

Some of you are aware that I have a passion for breadmaking. I even post a few pictures here and there on my Willow Tree Instagram account. Many years ago it all started with a humble kneaded loaf with a later transition to no-knead artisanal-style loaves to, within the last few years, sourdough/no-yeast breads, which has become a deep interest, sometimes bordering on obsessional (I like to keep it real).

Bread making is an interesting activity for someone who has long been trying to work on issues of perfectionism. People who don’t have bread as a hobby are often super-kind and marvel when you make your own bread (“Isn’t that hard? Time consuming? I could never do that, etc.) But for those of us who like to do it, it’s exciting to think about when to bake and what to make next. Except when things don’t go according to plan.

I like to tell clients that I am pretty big on making mistakes because it provides a pathway to growth and skill development which we can’t experience in the same way when we’re getting it ‘right’ all the time. And if push comes to shove I still believe in the value of mistakes, despite what I’m going to tell you next.

So here I am, all rah, rah, rah about mistakes, and then I got met with a bread making scenario that I was entirely unfamiliar with. I will spare you the many technical details here, because that’s not really what’s important, and it’s actually kind of boring.

Fantasy, Meet Reality

For several months before the weekend, I had been lightly prepping to make a different bread ‘formula’ (breadspeak for recipe) with a different method. In fact that bread itself came from a book authored by a sourdough icon which had been shipped from the UK, especially for my birthday this year. When I received it, I was pretty giddy to start. The book is replete with glorious bread photos but lots of technical stuff too—everything I needed to elevate my bread skills.

Despite my eagerness, when I started my baking I was admittedly pretty nervous. The book comes with worksheets to document the timing of the various stages of the sourdough bread process so I could evaluate when and why I am getting particular results. I had never gotten this technical before; there were more than a few echoes of flash-backing to high school math class, desperately trying to find out what “x” was (not pleasant memories).

So, I started off, following the directions to the T, feeling as awkward as hell (I’m new at this technique, I kept reminding myself) and then realizing very quickly the the dough I was working in my bowl felt nothing like any dough I had handled before. Ever. It was like rubber—very tight and totally inelastic. Quick brain scramble. Confusion. What was happening? I had no point of reference. I pressed on, trying to follow the instructions which were in several parts of the book—I had to flip back and forth, from the detailed instructions, to the timing/schedule sample worksheet, to the recipe. It was all getting pretty confusing and I soon felt like I was baking bread for the first time.

Ok,” I thought. “Think. Think. Think. What is going on?” I wasn’t exactly sure. Too many variables. But was this dough salvageable? I started having automatic thoughts, as we would say in Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, like “this dough is ruined,” “i’m going to throw it out,” “I am so bummed.This really sucks. I feel ‘depressed’.” And then, “This is just bread. Not a world crisis” which actually made me feel even worse because I was now invalidating myself too.

A Divine Intervention

And then someone in my family asked me if I wanted to go look at plants, which seemed like a hell of better idea than fighting with dough. Plants always soothe my mind. This meant that I now had to take my book and my worksheet and my big bowl ‘o dough, and say goodbye. I stopped short of tossing the dough in the compost. I was ready to do it but it’s not something I have done before since even doing that just seemed like too much work.

So, I went and looked at plants. And it was fun. I came home, still kind of bummed about my bread, but I was admittedly way more relaxed. I decided to check on the dough and lifted it out of the bowl. To my surprise, it was different. Not still exactly what I was used to, but much closer. What was different? The dough had relaxed. And strangely, it was like me and the dough were now mirroring one another. I was a little weirded out at this point and somewhat puzzled.

I then proceeded, and several hours later, baked it. And it was OK. Not stellar, but OK.

Reflect and Review

And then I sat back and wondered what all this was about. I have to admit that I still don’t know but I have a few takeaways:

  • Even though I think I’m pretty chill I can get blindsided by the force of uncertainty. It’s one thing to be philosophical about being ok with not knowing, and quite another when faced with the disorientation and discombobulation of it. I’ve learned it’s good to be humble (and real).
  • Judging oneself never helps. These thoughts can arise automatically, particularly if they’re very ingrained; whenever possible, though, it’s important to make an effort to keep letting go of self-judgement.
  • I come from the school of “big problem…anxiety hits…I ned to solve it I-M-M-E-D-I-A-T-E-L-Y.” I was fascinated by how the dough situation had changed after walking away for a while and taking care of my state of mind.
  • Not everything in life is an emergency (as in the above point) and needn’t necessarily be solved right away—or in some cases, even at all.
  • Perfectionism or activities that stoke perfectionism offer an excellent opportunity to observe (without judgement) how much of one’s ego (defined sense of self) is getting involved. And it’s like a door often opens up later, with a further opportunity to take a step back and not add to the ego-building.

And this experience has left me with some deeper questions which will guide me in areas not just limited to breadmaking such as:

  • Should I continue to take myself out of my comfort zone and travel to processes unknown in order to push my skills?
  • Is it better to work more intuitively and intuitionally and develop a richer sense of self-trust and self-allyship?
  • Should I toss out all expectations of results—including skill-development—and stay in the moment, not exactly knowing where that will take me?

At this point I’m more inclined towards the third question, although there are elements of the first and second which resonate a lot as well. But if I keep in mind that while perfectionism may be the fantasy, it’s actually not the goal; In this place, anything is possible.