A few months into my first ‘tour of duty’ at L’Arche DC, I shared the story of cooking my first L’Arche supper with a new assistant, Allison. I told her how intimidated I was by the idea of cooking for 17 people – the entire household, plus a few guests. Anxious to please, I devised an elaborate menu — frittatas, sweet potatoes, salad, homemade bread. My housemates kept poking their heads into the kitchen to see what wonders I was working. This was gratifying, so I pressed on. Yet as the afternoon waned, I saw that my menu ‘reach’ exceeded my culinary ‘grasp’. To be more specific:  I’d never baked bread before. As such, I made a last-minute decision to buy a loaf of bakery bread instead.

At this point, Allison laughed and said, “Honey, next time, don’t even think about baking the bread! Just say no. Don’t bake the bread!”

I’ve kept her words in my mind and heart since then. I understand them to mean:  let go of the need to be ‘perfect’. It’s okay to not be a bread-maker (or a brewer.) It’s okay to be who you are.

Now, I realize that there is a place and time for giving your all. Your college application, the Olympic relays…by all means, go all out.

But cooking a meal for people who will love and support you no matter what? Don’t turn that into an Olympic sport. Don’t put that kind of pressure on yourself. That kind of pressure doesn’t translate well to the easy pleasure of sharing a meal. Instead, it lends itself to you slumping in your chair, exhausted, when your wild cooking-effort is complete.

But how do you not go there? How do you resist the temptation to ‘bake the bread’? As a recovering perfectionist, allow me to share some strategies:

Uncomplicate / realize that you have options.

In her book When Organizing Isn’t Enough, author Julie Morgenstern offers a way of re-tooling perfectionist thinking. She recommends giving yourself three ‘approaches’ to each task:  minimum, moderate and maximum. For example, the minimum for me preparing dinner at L’Arche would be to order pizza; moderate would be to cook a healthy-but-simple meal such as a stir-fry; maximum would be to go full-on gourmet and make lobster (and/or bread.)

Julie advises that recovering perfectionists, “…opt for either the minimum or the moderate whenever possible. You can always add a layer of polish after the minimum is done. This technique helps you recognize that there are more than the two outcomes of disaster or perfection.” In other words:  there is a middle way. To find it, it’s helpful to…

Observe others / surround yourself with teachers.

How do you feel around a person who is always striving to please? Someone who is always seeking to improve, and never resting in the goodness of what is? Being around them gets kind of tiring, doesn’t it? There’s no ‘room’ to rest and relax.

But even acknowledging that…how do you get perspective when you’re already mired in the perfectionist mindset?

You watch (and remember) people who have a better handle on it than you do.

Given my own perfectionistic tendencies, I have a lot to learn. So I surround myself with teachers of the ‘middle way’, like my friends Miguel*, Cassandra and Alan. I love to be around people who are content with who they are, people who are content to contribute what they can. People who can say, “Good enough” and move on. People who inspire me to grow and change, but also invite me to simply be with them.

As you move toward a ‘middle way’ for yourself, remember to…

Question your motives / look for the way of love.

When you feel yourself moving toward perfectionistic striving, take pause and ask yourself:  is this action motivated by love for myself and for others? Love doesn’t push you too far past your limits. Love doesn’t rush around frantically, trying to please everyone with impressive displays. Love is gentler, kinder and more patient than that. When you let love rule your actions, you go easier on yourself.

In my first-supper fiasco, my motives were only half-love. True, I wanted to create a nourishing meal…but I also wanted people to be impressed by my abilities. I wanted them to see me as an ‘experienced’ assistant, as someone who belonged at L’Arche. At the core of my striving was this yearning to belong, to contribute. And beyond the new-kid insecurity, I wanted to show my new-found love for the people at L’Arche.

I’m encouraged by this quote from Martin Luther King Jr (emphasis mine):  “Keep feeling the need for being important. Keep feeling the need for being first. But I want you to be the first in love. I want you to be the first in moral excellence. I want you to be the first in generosity.”

Years later, I can look back and smile at my younger self. Little did she know:  she already belonged in L’Arche. In fact, four years and many a meal later, she still does. And it didn’t even take homemade bread to make it happen.




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*Names have been changed.

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  1. […] is the final post in a 4-part series on “Saving your sanity.” The last post was, “Uncomplicate, or, don’t bake the bread.” I post on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays (Thankfully, I wrote this post on Wednesday, since […]

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