You Aren’t A Superhero. Stop Hurting Yourself Trying

Good morning, friends and neighbors.

I’m finally attending to my side work, and not a moment too soon. It’s starting to get a bit too real out here.

For reference, “side work” in this case doesn’t mean I just decided to start cleaning down my tables, scrubbing floors, and organizing the walk-in in the bakery. That’s an expectation of kitchen life. I use the idea of “side work” as a metaphor for self-care. The stuff that isn’t necessarily anyone’s job, but it needs to get done or things get pretty gross pretty fast.

In everyday life, “side work” is things like making dentist appointments, cleaning your house, balancing your check book… and in my case, getting myself back in front of a psychologist.

Lately, my stress levels have been a bit higher than usual. A large contract is coming the way of my bakery, and my team is central to completing it. Over the time we’ve had to prepare, there’s been delays, meetings, and higher priorities left and right. Then, in the final week we have to prepare- we don’t have enough ingredients, and won’t till the end of the week.

I’m frustrated, I’m stressed, I tried to avoid this situation happening. In the end, it’s going to be me working extra hours trying to make the deadline- and I’m more pissed about not making the deadline than I am the extra work.

“The Enemy of Good is Perfect.”

I’ve been at this blogging thing for a bit, and I’m pretty certain that no one reads this for a play-by-play of my mental health. The reason I bring it up here is because of something that came up in my most recent therapy session, and it strikes at something endemic to the service industry- most notoriously for bakers and pastry chefs.

It’s perfectionism, and it’s going to kill you.

I touched on perfectionism some time ago as it relates to self-discipline. Specifically, I said that there was self-discipline, then there’s perfectionism, and then obsession. It’s important to know when to tap the breaks.

Perfectionism isn’t one giant, monolithic characteristic, though. It’s completely possible to be obsessive about certain parts of your life and utterly lax about others. For example, you can demand perfection when it comes to keeping a kitchen clean, but not worry so much if your bedroom is a mess.

The dictionary only defines perfectionism as “refusal to accept any standard short of perfection,” which itself does not delineate. When it comes to personality and psychology then, perhaps it is better to describe perfectionism as an unwillingness to accept imperfections in oneself.

Sadly, no one and nothing is perfect- and expecting your efforts to be so all the time can keep you from putting effort into anything.

Tapping the Breaks on Perfection

In my case, perfectionism isn’t in anything tangible. I’m detailed in my work, of course, but I’ve gotten pretty good at identifying and accepting when the icing on my danishes isn’t picture-perfect. I’ve also gotten better at identifying when things don’t have to be.

To an extent, my perfectionism is aimed at capability, of all things. When given a task, I’m driven to successful completion, regardless of circumstances. That “given” part is the interesting bit… apparently I can disappoint myself repeatedly, but get flustered at the idea of not completing objectives from someone else.

What does this look like? Here’s some examples. Do you know anyone who:

  • Gets seriously angry at themselves for not completing a project (regardless of whether or not it was possible?)
  • Comes to work regardless of illness or injury- not for financial reasons but as a form of commitment (“out of a sense of duty?”)
  • Feels guilty on not being able to complete tasks, regardless of possibility of completion (“Not your fault that happened/ you couldn’t have done anything”) or qualifying conditions (“It’s ok, we didn’t need the whole task done.”

That’s been me ever since culinary school. More arguments for the ideal restaurant worker, right?

Not so much. As you can guess, that falls right in line with the masochistic, endurance-testing ethic of the kitchen- “The only places you should be except the kitchen when you’re supposed to work are jail, the hospital, or the morgue.”

In my case, my brain has been trying to convince me:
It’s your job to make these pastries. It doesn’t matter that there weren’t ingredients for half the week. Did you make the pastries? No. So you failed.”

“Having high standards” is a good characteristic for anyone to have. In my case, I have high standards of myself when it comes to reliability and competence- I am terrified of people thinking I’m a flake, unreliable, or a liar. I’ve worked when sick or injured. Why? “Because I need to be at work. Because they need me.”

Things have a tendency to happen, though- situations where I can’t finish a job. It doesn’t matter then whether or not events were in my control or not- for my brain, the bottom line is “You couldn’t do the thing you were asked to do.”

It’s good to have high standards for oneself- but when those “high standards” reach impossible levels, something has to give.

That’s when you have to tap the breaks, and then pour yourself a big glass of water because there are some bitter pills to swallow:

You are not Superman.
You are not a god.
There are things not in your power, and they WILL influence your ability to perform.

“No Excuses” Doesn’t Mean “No Reasons”

Supplies you need won’t be ordered in time. You’ll get sick. You’ll work all weekend to complete a project and then it’ll all fall apart over night. What are you supposed to do? Magically rustle up everything you need? Just keep powering through things until you collapse? Just never sleep again?

Of course not. It’s possible to take responsibility for things, accept what things aren’t in your power, plan for them, and know you are doing what you can.

In my case, there were decisions made that weren’t mine to make. I can’t have done everything myself, and others had higher priorities. It was never my sole responsibility to see it done. It sucks to work extra hours- but that is me doing my best to solve a problem, not a punishment for failure.

Ultimately, things will work out. No one ever died for lack of pastries- and I can know that I do my best to make things work. I can keep trying to improve myself and my skills too- even while knowing I will never be perfect.

Summing up…

You are not perfect. You are not all-powerful. Things will go wrong, regardless of whether or not you could do anything to stop them.
You can plan for them and around them- but things can still go wrong.

Even in cooking- “the art of control”– there is equal importance in understanding what isn’t in your control, accepting those things, and working with and around them. This isn’t free reign to make excuses- to abdicate control of everything– but it is about trusting your own discipline without letting it drive you crazy.

What are you holding yourself to crazy standards over?

Stay Classy,

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