We’re all guilty of perfectionism and if we’re not careful it can take over. But taking steps away from it can really help you as you take on the task of decorating cakes and allow you to enjoy the process and create things you can feel proud of.
During the journey of starting my cake decorating business, I gained quite the reputation among family and friends for being the following: stressed, perfectionism-inatior procrastinator, control freak, a crier. Not a great list of qualities but it was all true.
I say ‘was’…I hardly ever cry anymore!
All of these things came as a result of perfectionism. I’m not really sure where the perfectionism came from – I mean, that’s a question for a therapist. It probably waltzed into my brain hand in hand with people-pleasing tendencies; something I find is difficult to avoid when you’re creating for a client’s special occasion.
And it builds over time in a sneaky kind of a way. It disguises itself as you wanting to improve, progress and build on your skills. Or masquerades as you want to do your best for someone. And there’s nothing wrong with these things until it goes too far and they become so tangled up in your self worth that nothing is good enough: you aren’t good enough and your best isn’t good enough.
“It’s fine!” my mum would say. “I don’t want it to be just fine!” I would retort back.
For me, the absolute peak of those crappy feelings all came to together after a mishap with a wedding cake. I so vividly remember the moment it happened. I was driving to a venue on a winding ol’ country road up a hill in North Yorkshire with my mum holding the wedding cake on her lap when a couple of things happened…
First, I could see from my rear-view mirror that a car was about to overtake me. Second, I could see what that driver couldn’t, that there was a car coming towards us around the bend. Third, I heard my mum make a little murmuring noise…
The car overtook me, dodging me and the car coming towards us. We were fine but I still took a sharp intake of breath and, as anyone would, cursed the idiot who thought it was ok to overtake someone on a bend on a country lane! My mum, however, was silent. You know when you ,just know something has happened? I don’t think Mum counted on this bit of intuition; I think she thought if she kept quiet I wouldn’t suspect. But I knew…
“It’s not nothing. What’s happened?”
“Well, the cake has just cracked a little….”
It turns out there was an issue with the stacking of the cake and the weight of the cake had caused it to sink on the bottom tier. It had nothing to do with the drive. (I learned some lessons about transporting cakes that day but we can save that for another post!) It would have happened if we’d been on a flat road. But the coincidental dramatic moment during the journey sticks in my head so vividly and just helped me to over dramatise the whole incident.
After driving the rest of the way in panicked silence, we arrived at the venue and I was heartbroken. The staff at the venue couldn’t have been kinder a,nd with a bit of re-jigging of flowers, the problem was hidden and no harm was done. Afterwards the bride was also amazing.
So, we can move on, right?
I am not exaggerating when I tell you that I grieved for days over that cake. There was no other word for it. I was inconsolable. My mum had to drive us home from the venue as I cried.
I was on the treadmill in the gym a couple of days later and I remember my face in the mirror as my mind wandered back to the cake and tears started to sting my eyes. I could have cried then and there in the middle of the sports centre.
It took me some time to move away from feeling like that and for a while I almost gave up making wedding cakes. I started every wedding cake with the thought that I was about to ruin someone’s day and, let me tell you, that’s not the attitude you want to have going into a creative project.
I’ve come on leaps and bounds since then but it’s still an ongoing battle to not catastrophise and mix up my self worth with a cake! But I have learned a lot and I want to do everything I can to make sure you never feel this way about any cake you bake or decorate. Or about anything really! So where to start…
1. MISTAKES HAPPEN
They really do! Especially as you are just starting out. How do you learn otherwise?
Have I ever again transported a three-tier wedding cake on my mum’s knee? No, I have not!
My perfectionism took over that day to the point where I honestly thought I had ruined the wedding. The truth is, no one even knew apart from the bride and that’s only because the wedding planner hadn’t known what happened and proceeded to tell the couple that the cake was about to collapse at any moment. (It wasn’t.)
If you are so caught up with berating yourself that everything isn’t perfect it’s hard to think logically about your mistakes and therefore makes it harder to fix them.
Take a step back and a deep breath and remember you are human.
2. FINDING THE BALANCE BETWEEN CARING AND CARING WAY TOO MUCH
You know those episodes of Bake Off when something hasn’t gone quite right and the baker is upset? ‘It’s only cake!’ all the people cry. But when you bake and know how much of your heart goes into it, it’s so much more than that. As you can tell, I feel those moments so, so deeply!
So how do we take a step back from being so overly invested?
Have you ever heard someone say that you shouldn’t make pastry when you’re angry or upset? Things don’t work when you go into them flustered or when you're too worried about the outcome to properly concentrate.
So start by trying to focus on the process; baking and decorating have built-in mindfulness. They’re methodical and they engage all the senses. Take your time and go through all the processes slowly. For a start, this will mean you are less likely to make mistakes but it will also make you more likely to enjoy what you are doing. Things will then fall into place much easier after that and you can be proud of the work you put in.
Urgh, I know right. As someone who wants to be good at something immediately and sometimes even expects to do something right the first time, the idea of practice does not appeal! We’re all friends here so I don’t mind admitting there have been times when I have tried something for the first time on an order and been surprised when it hasn’t worked. Cue instant stress, yucky self-talk and those tears we mentioned earlier!
It’s only recently that I have become aware of the power of practice and that there’s a lot of fun in testing and experimenting! Over the years, I’ve built up techniques that I know work and I have seen myself become quicker at doing things with consistently good results. Things that previously would have taken me a whole afternoon, now don’t take quite that long. (And let me tell you I don’t miss those 1am finishes! Although they do still happen, just not quite as often!) And things that I once struggled with have become second nature.
Practice doesn’t make perfect and things won’t happen overnight. But it makes you more comfortable with what you are doing. It allows you to change things, to improve on them each time, to work a bit quicker and appreciate the growth you’ve made.
4. MANAGE YOUR SELF TALK
Watch how you talk to yourself when you’re creating.
My mum and I had a little joke where she asks if someone liked their cake and I reply that they thought it was rubbish. Haha, very hilarious… Until I realised all I was doing was masking that negative talk as a joke. And not masking it very well (and also not really being that funny.)
Stop telling yourself that something is rubbish or you can’t do something. Everyone starts somewhere and you’ve started. That’s something to be celebrated. I still need to listen to myself on this one so let’s work on it together.
5. CELEBRATE YOURSELF
We’re not very good at this – stiff upper lip and humility and all that. But I want you to know that it’s ok to think you’ve done a bloomin’ good job...No! A great job!
It’s great to have cheerleaders; those people who will always be there to encourage you and remind you of how great you are when you are having a wobble. But don’t forget you can do that for yourself too.
Made a cake that is completely delicious? Toast yourself with a cuppa!
Nailed that technique you’ve been working on for forever? Time for a celebratory happy dance!
Write these things down, if you feel so inclined, so that you can go back to them later when you need a little bit of a boost.
6. MANAGE EXPECTATIONS
You’ve started on your cake decorating journey and you have those buttercream cakes down to a fine art but then! Someone asks you to make a 3 tier cake all covered in fondant… What do you do? Say yes and figure it out along the way? There is absolutely nothing stopping you from learning new things but you need to make sure you are giving yourself time to practice (as discussed!) otherwise you’re going to head into it feeling panicked and resentful and we have already established that's not such a good idea!
I have said ‘no’ to clients in the past when I have felt that I wouldn’t be comfortable doing something – I still frequently say no to making sculpted cakes because I feel I lack experience and they really up the stress levels!
No one will think any less of you; the Client will appreciate the honesty and you will thank yourself for making a decision that will prevent any stress.
This doesn’t have to mean you lose customers. If I can’t do a cake for whatever reason, I offer a recommendation of a fellow baker and say that I’d love to hear from them again for any future cakes.
7. MUTE AND UNFOLLOW ON SOCIAL MEDIA
Social media is a great place for finding inspiration to help you on your cake journey; it’s full of how-tos, some wonderful cake people, and tips, tricks and ideas. But there’s a real danger of being made to feel inadequate by the ‘perfect’ images rife online. And (see above) make us feel like we need to do all the things.
It’s getting a bit better; people are more open to sharing their mishaps and things that aren’t completely beautiful. But sometimes that’s difficult to find amongst the highly stylised images and the beautiful feeds.
Now on Instagram, I only follow other cake businesses with who I engage on a more personal level; those accounts and women who are doing wonderful things and are always there as a support. Community over Competition. Knowing that I find it tricky not to feel inadequate when seeing big, fancy cake accounts with millions of followers, I choose not to have them in my feed. And if you don’t want to unfollow, remember you can mute accounts if you want a little break. And don’t feel bad about it – they will never know!
Combatting perfectionism is an ongoing thing; it won’t just vanish overnight. But remember to treat yourself kindly, take your time and just enjoy it – cake is supposed to be fun.
And don’t forget, I think you are ace!