Perfect Collapse

I made the ugliest cake of my eleven-year baking career yesterday. Things have been more busy than usual. I’m still waiting on some big, scary decisions to be made. I landed three projects, and I’m not feeling well. There’s a former, not-so-distant version of myself that would have remade this expensive, time-consuming, gluten-free, vegan cake without a second thought–even disgusted at the idea of not doing so. I’d do this at the expense of my sanity and well-being. It wouldn’t have impacted other responsibilities, though, because nothing could be lesser as a result. I would have had to make it all work, be beyond perfect, and be seemingly unaffected by it. 

But when the idea of remaking this cake briefly crossed my mind, it genuinely felt like an absurd concept. Of course I’m not going to remake this cake. I know it will taste great; it’s good enough. There are other things that are in need of my finite resources. The world will keep spinning. I get that this can seem like nothing, but this moment was pretty huge for me.

I’ve lost sleep to remake cakes and cookies, to redo logos while zoomed in at 6400%, to achieve a level of cleanliness that’s not reasonable, to spend too much time rewriting, to dwell on an awkward social interaction, to construct the perfect email, to plan the ideal birthday, to overthink just about anything. Pickiness and an overly critical eye made the ability to enjoy, to exist in moments, to be content precisely impossible. 

I’ve manipulated others into doing what I knew was best despite their own opinions. I held myself to impossibly high standards and expected the same of others–everyone around me constantly let me down. Thinking in extremes was a hallmark of my personality. There was no room for gray areas; there were no second chances for people who misstepped. I’d exhaust myself trying to orchestrate everything around me just so. If this somehow still failed, it was time for retroactive control to kick in. There was never peace.

I can see now that, for me, my perfectionism was built on a house of cards. Something I was only ever able to achieve out of luck, some privileges, and at a significant cost to my mental health and my relationships. It was entirely not sustainable. It’s a coping mechanism founded in a sense of control that got me through traumatic times. As a result, I embraced it without fully being aware of what I was doing. And then it started working against me, causing the harm I was desperate to avoid. It became life-constricting, and yet I held on even tighter.

I think there will always be a part of me that will have that brief thought to remake something. But the ultimate goal and hope is to understand what’s reasonable and what’s not in these situations. It should never fester and consume and torture. Rewiring a brain with nearly forty years of experience being a certain way and associating this way of being with survival” and the only right” approach is beyond challenging. It’s something I’ll probably always be in therapy for, and that’s OK. 

As an aside, there was an original version of this post where I used this space to share the story of how this insight came to be, but I decided that even for me, that was a bit too personal to share out loud on the internet. It was terrible and messy, and I fought it, but I’m glad it happened exactly as it did. With therapy and learning more about this particular issue, I’ve slowly started to understand. I began to understand that instead of thriving, I’m actually in pain. I started to understand what people I care about had been trying to tell me. 

Additionally, I started to see that often, when people talk about perfectionism, it’s framed as a low-key brag–a cutesy vibe akin to I’m a little OCD!” I cannot stress enough that this is not what’s happening here. I’ve gone through many emotions in coming to terms with this, including shame, profound regret, and embarrassment. There’s nothing wrong with simply wanting and trying to do your best, but this is different than that. This is more self-defeating, rigid, and unreasonable.   

I’ve experienced the depths of harm caused as the person battling these strong convictions and anxieties and, most importantly, what it then does to everyone else. It’s been a struggle and I make mistakes, but I’m really proud that I made an ugly cake yesterday and left it at that.

See you tomorrow over breakfast.

February 15, 2024

A tiny project byJoni Trythall inspired by friends at Wiggle Work.