First Course: Herb Dips and Origins of Perfectionism

How does perfectionism get started? At first I thought maybe from being criticized. However, I have read some interesting research that says just the opposite. One root of perfectionism  is being praised. Apparently, when children are praised for achievement, (“Great job!”) rather than encouraged during effort, (“You’re really working hard to build that tower!”) a destructive equation of self-worth can be developed: “When I do well, I am good. When I don’t do well, I’m not good enough.” From this comes an aversion to activities that don’t come naturally, because they might result in failure and a confirmation of the “not good enough” feeling.

As a kid I always did well in school, especially at things like reading and writing, which came naturally to me. Sports were a totally different story, I always felt uncoordinated and behind the other kids. I never wanted to try because I was terrified that I would be awful at it. This type of pattern has continued throughout in my life in more subtle ways.

Another negative side effect of praise is decreased motivation. Being praised for an activity can cause children to lose interest in the activity for its own sake, and become “praise junkies,” doing whatever they are doing just for the praise (or reward). This creates a dynamic where kids will do something when an adult is watching but will not do it on their own, because praise can take away the intrinsic value of the activity.

I have been what I would call a “people pleaser” or just as easily “praise junkie” for as long as I can remember. I worked in restaurants through high school and college and I really loved waiting tables. I could get my praise fix not only in thank you’s and compliments, but a clear monetary value!

Along with praise comes the companion addiction “making people happy.” I know that it isn’t possible to make people happy, and it isn’t even possible to prevent people from being angry or upset with me. That hasn’t stopped me from trying! Somewhere along the way I lost my internal compass of my own value and I looked to others, loved ones, strangers, to tell me what I was worth. This is an incredibly self-destructive paradigm! When I don’t perform in a way that I think is just right, I decide that I have failed somehow. Then this skewed story feeds off of itself, in that I must have not done it just right because I’m not good enough.

Let me be clear that I am not walking around all day thinking, “I have to be perfect. Am I perfect enough?” But as I gain more clarity and “distance” with which to hear my own thoughts rather than being immersed in them, I hear myself thinking very frequently “Why didn’t I _____?” or “I should have _____.” Do you hear yourself asking similar questions? I think these are examples of perfectionism and arguing with reality, both of which lead to feeling frustrated and unworthy.

Since this post is the first of my week’s theme about perfectionism and the catering job I just completed, I will share with you how some of these feelings played out for me this past week. I was hired by someone I love and admire who lives out of town to cook for a party of thirty people.

At first I was totally not conscious of my perfectionism buttons being stomped on. I had signed on for a job that was somewhat over the top, considering my schedule (full time mom to baby who does not like the car or running errands in general), space (small apartment kitchen with about two feet of usable counter space), and logistical situation (sharing a car with my husband who works 8am-4pm). I would only be able to do it if I worked at night when the kids were sleeping and during the day if I brought the baby along. The party was on Sunday so that meant cooking only a few things ahead of time, and the rest just before. We observe Shabbat so there would be no cooking on Saturday until after about 6:30pm. I wanted to please the host of the party, I wanted everything to be just right, and just the way she asked for it. It did not even occur to me to say something along the lines of “Let’s decrease the number of side dishes” or “No, I don’t have time to go to several stores for decorations. I will do the cooking and maybe you can ask someone else to buy party supplies and decorations.” It literally didn’t even occur to me to do anything other than bend over backwards to create the party just the way she asked me to.

Another trigger for me was the sense of work to be done that I could not get started on. I was able to do the shopping little by little, but I knew that the cooking would have to wait for the last minute which caused so much anxiety for me. Cooking is always the fun part for me, I am absolutely at my best chopping vegetables and preparing dishes. I feel joyful and free and I could spend the whole day on my feet without noticing. I wanted to get to the good part! Shopping, on the other hand, is one of my least favorite things to do in the world. Especially in stores like Costco (bless Whitney’s heart for taking me and keeping me focused) and Michael’s (should have brought Mo for that one). When I walk into a busy store filled with such an over abundance of items I feel like a wave is washing over me. My head starts to spin as I look at my list over and over again and walk around the aisles in circles until I’ve found everything.

These feelings of impending work that could not be done yet, and wanting to do everything just right for a friend who I admire and who has very discerning taste, had me entirely off kilter and feeling ill. Last Sunday night, one week before the party, I got a tension headache as soon as I came home from Costco. I hadn’t been able to find everything I was looking for, and I realized I had at least three or four more store runs ahead of me. I realized how tired I was and how little time I had to work. I ignored the headache and went to bed, waking up several times with a tight feeling in my solar plexus and the headache still pounding. The next morning I felt even worse, nauseous and woozy. I had to drive Mo and Ben to school because Ella had a check up that afternoon and I needed the car to get her there. I was determined to make it to the doctor because I had already changed the appointment and my inner perfectionist said, “Don’t be a flake!” so I left the house with the family. We made it about 1/4 mile before I had to ask Mo to pull over so I could throw up. No, I’m not pregnant. I had just worked myself into such a panic over all the work ahead of me that I didn’t have time to do, that I had actually gotten physically sick. Instead of thinking, “Wow, I had better give myself a break and maybe change the plan for the party!” I thought, “I can’t believe I let myself get so stressed over this silly party.” I spent the rest of the day vacillating between telling myself that everything would be okay, telling myself that yes, it would be okay, but only if I totally over-extended myself to make it happen, and telling myself that there was no way it would be okay, I could never get it all done. None of these thoughts were helpful. I did manage to pull myself together that morning by eating many rice cakes, drinking green tea, and laying on the floor playing with my sweet baby girl.

Now the party is over and I feel like it was a great opportunity to have all of my buttons pushed. I’m taking the time to look at what happened and see what those buttons are. I don’t want to go through every moment of the past week and say to myself, “I should have _____” or “Why didn’t I _____?” I would rather look at what happened and say, “Wow, I am really hard on myself when _____ happens. What does that mean?” and ” How else could I see this situation?”

I don’t have a clear picture of any of it yet, and I feel like I’m just starting to unpack a full suitcase! I am open to hearing feedback, if you feel like you have any suggestions or personal stories that would be helpful.

Now for the fun part- I will leave you with the first course of dishes I made for the party!

Salatim (Appetizers)

Parsley pesto

Parsley pesto

I made three herb dips, parsley, cilantro and basil. I actually learned this recipe from Judy (the hostess of the party).

Take a bunch of fresh herbs and wash them very well to get rid of any sand, etc.

Put them in the bowl of a food processor or the container that comes with an immersion blender.

Add one clove of garlic, a handful of raw sliced almonds, a pinch of salt, and enough olive oil to blend into a paste. You can always get started and add more oil if it isn’t enough.

Pulse until it looks like pesto.

Taste and add more salt or a little lemon juice or whatever else you think might be good! If it is too garlicky, don’t worry. It will mellow out significantly if left overnight in the fridge. You can also add more almonds to mellow the garlic flavor.

This is amazing on sandwiches, pasta, as a condiment with just about anything! I especially like it with quiche (recipe to come when we get to the “main course” post!).

This recipe is the best way I have found to avoid throwing out the rest of a bunch of herbs I’ve bought for a recipe. I love making Thai noodle dishes with cilantro but I never use the whole bunch. Problem solved! You can even freeze it if you want. My uncle taught me that if you blanch (dip quickly into boiling water) the herbs first, they will stay green even after being frozen, rather than turning dark as the raw herbs oxidize.

Cooked chickpeas or as we call them, "humus beans"

Cooked chickpeas or as we call them, “humus beans”

I soaked these chickpeas overnight in cold salted water, then dumped the water in the morning and soaked them again. After a few hours I dumped the water again and added fresh, then cooked them until tender. I have tried to use organic chickpeas but as you can see in the photo, Goya beans cook up lovely and plump. The organic ones were smaller and had a sort of grassy flavor. You can for sure use canned chickpeas but it is really really easy and much cheaper to cook your own! For the cost of one can you can make a whole pot of beans.

Humus with spices and cilantro

Humus with spices and cilantro

Put as many chickpeas as will comfortably fit in your food processor.

Add about 1/2 cup good, fresh Israeli tehina (links to the brand we use. You can find it at any Kosher store). The Joyva brand at your supermarket will suffice, but once you have had the fresh stuff, that kind will taste super flat and “dusty” as Ben likes to say)

1/2 cup water, juice from one lemon, one clove of garlic, and about 1/4 tsp salt (don’t add if you are using canned chickpeas).

Blend until smooth, adding more water if it is too thick. Taste to see if it needs more lemon juice, garlic, or salt.

Serve topped with paprika and a drizzle of olive oil and fresh chopped herbs, or with some whole chickpeas as garnish.

This is extra extra delicious if you make the humus while the freshly cooked chickpeas are still warm, and serve with some homemade pitas right out of the oven (links to my pita recipe). Then you will know why Israelis love humus so much. It has nothing to do with that awful stuff they sell in tubs at the supermarket!

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4 thoughts on “First Course: Herb Dips and Origins of Perfectionism

  1. I have spent quite a bit of time this week realizing the ways in which I am a perfectionist. I have been fighting that, just not wanting to be…so this post was very timely for me. Even though it may have been part of my personality, I can definitely see how even small things can come into play (and feed it) when you are already prone to it. Thank you for sharing this with such authenticity. I appreciate it soooo much!

    I love these learning experiences we get just from living life.

    • Also, I am guilty of buying the supermarket tahini. I have never known another kind… and now that I live in the farthest possible place from Riverdale, there are definitely no Israeli supermarkets around here (though there might be a Lebanese one…)

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