Say Goodbye to Perfectionism to Open Your Heart and Home
- Sandy Coughlin Author, The Reluctant Entertainer
- Updated Nov 06, 2012
One of the most helpful pieces of advice I've received that helped me battle perfectionism is to never apologize for a culinary mistake. This may sound contrary to what it means to be a hospitable hostess, so let me explain. When we apologize for part of a meal that is still good but not up to our standards (some of which are still stained by perfectionism), we are actually stealing the potential enjoyment that our guests would otherwise experience. The fact is, most of the time guests are so focused on the moment, so grateful to get away from the daily grind and to relax, that they don't notice culinary shortcomings. So by apologizing, we are pointing out things that most people wouldn't even notice. And if they do notice it, most really don't think it's a big deal. Oftentimes, pointing out a defect in a meal is more about us and not about our guests at all.
Years ago we invited two couples and their kids to come to our house for dinner for the first time. I was going to wow them, really show them what a great hostess I was even as I greeted them at the front door with our two toddlers and six-month-old underfoot. I'm sure I even declined their offer to bring part of the meal, because again, I was prideful in having to do it all.
During this particular meal I served chicken divan, a very simple, crowd-pleasing dish you can prepare the night before and then pop in the oven shortly before it's time to serve.
I should have put my pride away before I opened the front door that night. I was nervous and excited at the same time. But I put too much into my own human efforts, trying to make things too perfect. It added the weight of the evening on my shoulders, as if it were all about me, instead of allowing an authentic experience to unfold. I really needed to remove myself and let the night flow without involving my pride.
When I served the meal that night, complete with rice and broccoli on the side, I was so proud of how beautiful the plate looked. Adding a twig of rosemary to the dish made it appear restaurant-worthy. I just knew the tender, mouth-watering chicken would melt in my guests' mouths.
After everyone was served, I sat down with a sigh of relief. Yes! I did it! But then I cut into my chicken and saw pink—pink meant raw! I forgot to precook the chicken! How did I miss this small detail when I'd cooked this recipe so many times before?
I was mortified and apologized over and over. I quickly and even aggressively gathered all the plates back into the kitchen. My husband was clued in to what happened—the sharp look in my eye was hard to miss— and he helped me out. We nuked each plate and re-served the guests in a not-so-happy manner.
I was embarrassed and sick inside. What did I learn? To check your food before you serve it? Sure. But also to realize mistakes happen and to go with the flow. And that a microwave is a hostess's best friend. But I learned something more. By profusely apologizing, I made a not-so-bad situation even worse. I sucked the joy from the room that evening. The lighthearted mood became overshadowed by a negative spirit just like that.
Perfectionism Fosters Loneliness and Isolation
There is a deeper reason why it's imperative that we combat perfectionism in our lives. When we strive to make hospitality perfect instead of excellent, we isolate ourselves from others. Perfectionists have a hard time making and keeping friends. They are not very happy because they know they will never be able to live up to their own unrealistic expectations. And our unrealistic expectations can actually hurt those around us, because they feel they can never measure up.
My parents were good role models. Our home did not have to be perfect before they invited people in. And they always included my sisters and me by having us help get ready, cook, and set the table—mistakes and all. We witnessed the benefits and happiness that living a hospitable life brought to our parents. Their happiness did not revolve around perfection. It was a matter of the heart.
But my background is very different from that of many other women. On a flight home from the Midwest, I struck up a conversation with a lady on the plane and we started talking about reluctant entertaining. With tears in her eyes, she told me how she tried to entertain earlier in her marriage, but by the time company would arrive, she'd be sick. She'd run around the house all day, trying to make everything perfect, until she literally became ill. She said she had a perfectionist mother who held impossible standards, especially for a working mother. To her, entertaining was a jail cell—not the enjoyable garden that included the deep connection with other people that she wanted it to be.
So now her family has resorted to eating out. When it's their turn to entertain, they head to a restaurant. These bad feelings haunt her to this day. Her children will likely feel the same way, which is one of the main reasons I set out to write this book: to set families free from the generational jail cell of perfectionism and isolation.
Think about kids. They don't start out in life being perfectionists. They learn from us. To this day I still struggle with wanting the kitchen to be perfectly cleaned or the kids' beds to be made before their friends arrive. But I know the perfect family does not exist—at least not in my home. Our imperfections and the little messes that surround us make us much more relatable when others come to visit.
When Abby decided to bake a cake for her brother's friend David, she got right in the kitchen and started baking. I backed off from helping out because I wanted it to be her thing, not mine. Abby had one goal in mind: to practice what she had been taught—hospitality. Sure, the kitchen was an utter disaster when she finished, and as I looked over at the lopsided cake, I just had to smile.
She was determined to make her own frosting, adding homemade strawberry jam to it. And even though the cake was far from perfection, I'd have to say the taste was perfecto! As we gathered in the living room with a bunch of teenage boys, Abby brought out the cake lit with candles and we all sang. The homemade cake, imperfect as it was with icing dripping down the sides, was not the focus. The focus was making David feel special on his birthday.
Success is defined when our children and their friends can relate, laugh, engage, and see beyond themselves. Our place is often messy, but it doesn't matter because our kids are reaching out and sharing what they have in the best way they know how.
Things don't have to be perfect in order to share our lives with others. I'm still learning this lesson, and my hope is our kids are catching on too!
I'll call nobodies and make them somebodies; I'll call the unloved and make them beloved. In the place where they yelled out, "You're nobody!" they're calling you "God's living children." --Romans 9:25-26 msg
Excerpted from: The Reluctant Entertainer: Every Woman's Guide to Simple and Gracious Hospitality by Sandy Coughlin
Copyright © 2010; ISBN 9780764207501
Published by Bethany House Publishers
Used by permission. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.
Sandy Coughlin is creator of the popular blog Reluctant Entertainer, which she began in 2006 to help women get past their entertaining fears. Sandy has been featured on national media outlets including Dr. Laura, Moody's Midday Connection, Kraft Foods and Family Magazine, Yum Food and Fun Kids and Library Journal. She has also blogged for SCJohnson.com, AWomanInspiredConference.com, Kyria.com, and other online publications. A busy mom of three teenagers, Sandy is active in various volunteer organizations, and she enjoys hosting parties, cooking, and running. Sandy is married to Paul, and the family practices hospitality in their hometown of Medford, Oregon. Visit Sandy's blog at ReluctantEntertainer.com for more information.