House and Home, Personal Finance

Perfectionism: The Thief of Joy

I have this slight obsessive compulsive tendency that rears its ugly head at the most inopportune times. Anyone else have that problem?

They say that in job interviews, the quintessential “weakness” one should present when asked is a perfectionist tendency. How could it possibly be a bad thing to strive for excellence … and dare for perfection?

I’m here to debunk that myth and replace it with a truth. Perfectionism is the thief of joy. It has ceased to be a virtue for me. In fact, it makes me a little more miserable.

I came to this realization over a seemingly insignificant event: baking a batch of chocolate cupcakes for a friend’s surprise birthday party. My sweet friend’s birthday was actually the day my mother passed away a couple months ago, so I didn’t get to celebrate with her at all. She and her husband recently bought a house, and between moving, house updates and spring work chaos, her birthday came and went with nary an acknowledgement let alone a decent celebration – quite unacceptable for a 30th birthday.

Enter the three-months-later surprise party. My friend’s husband checked with us to be sure we were available and then planned a killer surprise for his wife. I volunteered to make these chocolate cupcakes that we are all obsessed with because they taste the way all birthday cake should taste. Little morsels of heaven, I tell you! The birthday party was on a Saturday, so on Friday night, I assembled my ingredients and began to bake.

And now about that OCD. In recent years, I’ve learned how absolutely terrible partially hydrogenated oils are for your health, so I’ve sought to avoid them as much as possible in my cooking. Occasionally, I do have to use plain old vegetable oil, but I usually only do this if a substitute would detract from the taste or quality. Let me just tell you: these particular chocolate cupcakes must be made with vegetable oil. But I didn’t know that on Friday. Or at least, I had conveniently forgotten my past experience. Plus, I was out of vegetable oil at the time.

A trusted cookbook explained that butter may be substituted for vegetable oil in cake recipes with perhaps a slight change to the texture of the cake. Truly light and fluffy cakes are made with vegetable oil, while butter yields a slightly denser texture and less height. Allegedly. The French prefer butter in their cakes, so I reasoned that butter would be just fine.

It could have been the humidity or something amiss with the cupcake liners (which were foil), but I was fairly certain the butter was the culprit for the batter sort of leaking over the tops of the liners and dribbling sadly across the cupcake pan. They tasted … off. So disappointing. By this point, it was after 11 p.m., so I trudged off to bed resolving to try again in the morning, this time with classic vegetable oil.

In the morning, I got up and dashed to the grocery store for oil and more cupcake wrappers. Came home and whipped up another batch of cupcakes, this time with the vegetable oil. And this time … they were still so imperfect! They failed to rise adequately, and upon taste test, had a weird aftertaste.

I fretted about the imperfection of the first batch reasoning that I couldn’t present such an imperfect product at the birthday party of my friend. After baking batch number two, I became more than frustrated. I was tempted to throw them all away.

At this point, I just have to tell you that I am not usually a total failure in the kitchen. I usually do pretty well with cooking, though I am not a frequent baker. It’s difficult to know if I should blame the butter, oil, cupcake wrappers, terribly humid summer weather or any other of myriad untested variables.

Anyway, I was ready to toss out the whole lot. But the husband put a stop to that. I also remembered my mother.

My mother once sent my father to multiple stores in search of an 8-inch square cake pan for a recipe. Why? Because she only owned a 9-inch square cake pan. And she was that crazy. No level of improvisation was acceptable to her. And yet, even by following each and every recipe to the letter, she still had failures. Because that’s what happens when you cook! If you only bake or prepare food once a year, your chances for failure are far less than when you cook almost every day. You are simply going to have some failures. And sadly, my mother’s kitchen failures (when they occurred) usually turned into a fit of frustration followed by writing off the whole effort as a lost cause. And throwing it all in the trash.

I struggle with the same sense of frustration when a project goes awry, but it is only recently that I’ve begun to see this not as a virtue to be celebrated but a weird self-critical obsession that verges on psychological dysfunction. And I’m going to war against it.

Here are the lessons I learned from baking those cupcakes.

The middle makes no sense. The cupcakes tasted weird soon after coming out of the oven. I waited for them to cool, hesitantly made chocolate icing and decorated the tops with sprinkles. On the way to the party, we began to worry that there weren’t enough for all who would be attending. On a whim, we stopped at a bakery and bought 15 more cupcakes for $30, an extravagance likely fueled equally by my fear over the homemade cupcakes tasting absolutely terrible as much as by worry that more people might show up than had responded to the invitation. I was certain that everyone who tasted them would spit them right back out. Instead, once iced and decorated, they looked rather charming, and my husband and I agreed that we actually preferred the homemade to the store-bought product. Someone even commented that they tasted like they had a bit of espresso in them. The finished product always makes more sense than the partially completed.

No one thinks that much about other people. I spent so much time worrying that I would be perceived a failure by others and that my friend would be disappointed. I failed to remember until later that, shockingly, I am not the center of the universe. My friend did not know or care that the cupcakes had been expected to be a dismal failure. No one was the wiser! Based upon my own experience and how much time I spent worrying about what other people thought of my efforts, I now realize how little time other people likely spend thinking about me. Most people are thinking about themselves and just as worried as I was about how they are perceived. If we’re all so worried about how we are perceived, you can bet we aren’t doing that much actual perceiving.

Perfectionism is the thief of joy. The bottom line is that my friend was touched that I went to some effort on her behalf because I care about her. She didn’t notice or care that the end result wasn’t bakery perfection. But I spent so much time worrying that I robbed myself of the positive experience and pure enjoyment of making something for someone I care about. I was so worried about what other people might think and so terrified of failure that I didn’t even enjoy the process or think that much about my friend in the first place. Perfection does not exist, and the more experiences we have, the more likely we are to both fail and succeed. Some of our experiences will arrive at near perfection, and when they do we may bask in the achievement knowing that the experience itself – not the result – is the goal.