Last week, Felix and I invited friends over for dinner. We cooked thin Korean egg pancakes and stuffed them with vegetables, tofu, avocado; we sat on cushions around the lounge table and laughed and told stories over cups of silky soju; we realised at eleven o’clock it was a weeknight and we should all probably sleep soon.
I had a beautiful evening, and for all intents and purposes the dinner was a success.
But our guests didn’t see one quick, hot moment in the kitchen that nearly tore it all apart.
Picture me, nine o’clock, sweating over two pans burning on the gas stove, each bubbling with a delicate pancake. Carefully lifting the edge of one pancake with a spoon, testing it, it’s ready, levering an egg slice underneath it, it’s ready, yes, time to flip, pushing with the instrument, tearing, suddenly, the delicate skin of the pancake, no no no, no NO NO; this one was meant to be the good one, no; snapping the burner off in a huff; going for the other pan, a sudden, spastic shake of the whole thing, a big flip upwards, the gooey pancake lazily rolling over in the air and returning to the pan flopped over itself, no no NO Felix, Felix, a yell, he comes, what’s wrong, wordless pointing to the broken dry pancake and a quivering lower lip it’s fine it’s fine DON’T TELL ME IT’S FINE two hands steady on my shoulders it’s ok Soph it’s ok the other burner clicks off and my head pushed into his shoulder and his arms around me tight and it’s not fine it’s not it’s not the pancake it’s me why am I always like this.
After a brief moment I calmed down, resumed cooking, and ended up with a decent stack of intact pancakes and some delicious snacking scraps to quell my late-night hunger.
The dinner, of course, would have still been fun regardless of how many intact pancakes we had, how early or late we ate, and how much or how little I stressed about it.
Why, then, do I let myself get so stressed out about it?
Regular readers of this blog will know I’ve spoken quite a bit about my tendency to perfectionism and my corresponding panic when things don’t go as planned.
I’ve contemplated my desperate need to know what comes next, how at odds that is with the insouciant way life goes in Timor-Leste, and how I try to manage with it. I’ve spoken about how I decide how things should go and then get flustered and self-critical when they’re different. I’ve shared about how I’m challenging myself with unrealistic goals, because I know how I like to abandon things the second they don’t go to plan.
Now, I realise that these thoughts are likely better shared with my psychologist than with the internet, no matter how small this blog’s readership (hello, Mum!). But, like I’ve said before, this blog is something of a diary for me, and it’s public because I want to try and connect and relate my experiences with other people’s. I want there to be a purpose to all of this; I want the struggle I have with perfectionism and panic to reveal something for someone else.
But, at the same time, I can’t expect that. All I can focus on is what’s in my control (there’s likely a lot less in there than I think, right?).
I mentioned recently that as we hurtle towards the mid-point of the year I’m trying to collect my thoughts and take stock of the year.
At the beginning of this year I repeated to myself a little mantra, lifted from the French philosopher Voltaire: don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. An instruction to not destroy, belittle or abandon something, just because it doesn’t quite meet my skyscraper standards.
In the rush of everyday life I’ve forgotten that. Now, I’m trying to remember that.
Several things I’ve done this year have forced my to confront and tackle my perfectionism. Deadline-driven freelance writing has me submitting serviceable drafts I’m less-than-pleased with. The pace of life in Dili has my optimistic 10-item to-do lists never quite half-finished by the end of the day. And the encouragement of slightly older, more graceful friends has me talking myself out of the manic, hyper-productive lane I’ve spent the last three years of my work life in.
It’s uncomfortable, but it’s clearly growth, and I relish that.
But I’m beating myself up for still not being very good at managing the panic I feel when things don’t go according to script.
I can see the irony in criticising myself for not being very good at managing my perfectionism. But it isn’t making me stop. And, unlike what I usually write, today I don’t have a neat answer, a lesson, a gentle encouragement to myself to slow down, be gentle, listen to my gut, lean into life in Timor-Leste.
I’m panicking because I’ve planned the next six months of my life to a teeee and one misstep on this tightrope will send me toppling. It’s not ideal; I know. But everything I’m doing is exactly what I want to be doing and I don’t want to say no to any of it. And, at least, I’m not forcing myself to push through in the frenzied way I used to, and I have no expectations of delivering perfection. That’s freeing. But how to manage the panic?
Conquer perfectionism, move to Timor-Leste. But it’ll still stress you out.
I’ll still stress myself out.
A post-script, and a message that will embarrass Felix to no end. My chatterbox mouth falls short trying to describe how patient, calm, kind and brave he is with me; how squarely and fearlessly he meets my anxieties, my fretfulness, my idiosyncrasies, my panics. I have never felt so unconditionally loved or supported by a partner as I do right now with him. Doben hau hadomi o.