I stare at the birthday cake that I have spent the last several hours baking, cutting, icing and assembling.
My son is going through a superhero phase and wanted his party cake to reflect that. I’ve tried my best and made a square chocolate cake covered with frosting and little superhero models perched on top.
Now that I’ve finished I consider what I have produced. I turn the cake and study it from all sides. The conclusion is obvious. It is terrible. Utterly pathetic and an embarrassment. All I can see are flaws. The parts which are lopsided, the bits where the icing is rough. Cracks, holes and imperfections everywhere.
I think of the last couple of children’s birthday parties I have been to in recent weeks. The immaculate cakes which the proud parents presented. How can I embarrass my son and myself by presenting this disaster of a creation?
I sit at the kitchen table and fight off some low feelings. I’m almost overcome by the urge to throw the whole cake in the bin. I steady myself by gripping a corner of the table. I take a moment, and then I call my son. He enters the room. My hand trembles slightly.
‘Buddy, here’s the birthday cake. What do you think?’
His little mouth falls open.
‘Wow! Wow daddy, that is so awesome!’
‘Is it ok? You’re not disappointed?’
‘It’s the best cake ever daddy!’
Then I call my wife. She is similarly enthusiastic and gives me a congratulatory hug.
I take a photo of the chocolate creation on my phone. I think about it for a while and then I post it onto social media. Within minutes I get a number of likes and comments from people complimenting me on the cake.
The cake which I nearly threw in the bin just minutes before.
It would be reasonable for anyone reading this post to ask why I posted a pic of the cake to a public forum if I was really so unhappy with it.
I could answer that I wanted to advertise the fact that it was my son’s birthday.
Or perhaps the weaker part of me was just fishing for praise, searching for people to tell me how well I had done, to shore up my crumbling confidence. There’s likely some truth in that.
And maybe there’s a part of me that was genuinely curious to know what other people saw when they looked at that cake. I was intrigued by how we can have such wildly different reactions to viewing the same thing. How what can seem blatantly obvious to me doesn’t present itself in the same form to the next person.
I’ve been here before. Many, many times. Once, just hours before my son’s christening party, I binned an elaborate cake that I had spent two days creating. I was convinced it was a disaster although other people kept trying to reassuring me that it was fine.
And it goes much wider. Often I have given large parts of my time and creative effort to writing stories and narratives. Stories which I have then abandoned or destroyed because I became convinced they were without merit.
I spent a year writing a novel when I was much younger. When I finished and surveyed what I had done I became so despondent that I erased the whole work. Not another person read a single word of that novel, or ever will.
The greatest challenge I have as a blogger is getting these posts past my harshly critical mind. Everything I have ever written on this forum I have tortured myself about publishing. The voices which tell me that it is not good enough, that I am embarrassing myself, are never quiet.
Often I compose a post then work myself into a state about publishing it. Sometimes I don’t publish at all. If I do, I then spend hours nervously waiting for the opprobrium which I’ve convinced myself must come in my direction.
Once, when I was a schoolboy, I was shortlisted as a finalist in a poetry competition. I was invited to the awards ceremony where the work of all the finalists was read out. Rather than being able to enjoy the occasion I squirmed with embarrassment because it was obvious to me that my poem was of a much lower standard than all the other entrants. At the end of the evening, after hours of suffering miserably, I was announced as the winner of the competition.
Look even deeper still. I’m convinced my handwriting is an ugly, illegible scrawl while everyone else pens with an elegant hand. My mind believes my house to be always messy and untidy while everyone else I ever visit lives in organised bliss.
A couple of months back I planted grass seeds in my back yard with the ambition of growing a patch of lawn. Now I spend time every day studying the green growth, fretting over why my grass is inferior to every other lawn in our estate.
The conclusion is clear. My brain tells me if am involved in the process then it will be without worth. If I make it then it will be shit. That is how I see things.
But seeing things a certain way does not necessarily bring me to reality. Let’s go back to the cake and try to rationalise it. I’m no baker and I make one birthday cake a year for my son. With my limited skills I have produced a cake which is not perfect but probably far from a disgrace. It is not as bad as I first feared. And the cakes that the other parents produced for their children’s parties recently are undoubtedly not as perfect as my brain has remembered.
My son and wife were delighted with the final product. So were several social media friends. While there may be an element of some people merely being nice, the broader conclusion must be that the cake is not terrible.
Certainly not so bad as my brain tried to persuade me when I almost threw it in the bin.
Which leads to the assumption that I can’t trust what my brain is telling me.
Which is scary. Scary when everything I know, all my actions and thoughts, my version of reality, are determined by what goes on in my head. In other words, if I can’t trust my brain, what can I trust?
If this sounds slightly woolly or abstract, let me give this example. I’ve written before about how I looked in the mirror when I was very thin and all I could see was someone who needed to lose more weight (https://whatsadaddyfor.blog/2017/09/03/food-weight-and-the-obsessive-personality/).
The truth is that the capacity of the brain for self-deception and error is remarkable. Many of the memories in my head will be distortions, or in some cases inventions. Decisions I make will be based on assumptions rather than evidence and my views and instincts will be fed by pre-existing prejudices.
Add into this mix a character affected by low esteem, anxiety and depression and the potential for distortion is magnified.
Catastrophising is the term used used to describe a thought process where an individual thinks the worst possible outcome from every situation. I send a friend a message, they don’t respond immediately and I assume it is because that person now hates me.
And it is very difficult to change my own way of thinking. Difficult to break down the processes, to try and learn to separate emotion from thought, instinct from evidence. Difficult not to believe that every thought which pops into my head is an inalienable truth. Difficult not to get trapped in that vicious cycle of negative thoughts. Difficult to admit error and frailty.
I suspect I am not that different from many other people in having problems admitting when I have got it wrong. That my version of reality is not absolute. When I argue with my wife or son the stubborn part of my brain will insist that I am always right. How often do I admit that I am wrong?
So today we will host my son’s birthday party. He will hopefully have a wonderful time with his friends. My cake will be produced and he will blow out the candles and blush under the attention. I will sit in the corner smiling and making smalltalk with the other parents. The voice will be in my head telling me that everyone is laughing at me, thinking that I am a poor father, a lesser being, because I produced this monstrosity. Thinking that as soon as I’m out of the room everyone is talking about me, concluding that I’m just not good enough.
I will fight against it, urging my brain to consider it rationally. All these people are going about their own lives. They are not talking about my cake. They are not talking about me.
And at some point today I will go back and read what I have written here. As ever I will be flushed with shame and self-loathing over the inanity of what I have produced. I will be filled with the sense of waste over more time spent and nothing useful to show. The voice will tell me that I dare not publish, that the world will be laughing at me, pointing a mocking finger at my inadequacies.
And I will fight against this too. I will tell myself over and over that I have something useful to say, that my views are worth hearing. That if I am going to say anything at all then it must be utterly honest.
And then I will dig my nails into the palms of my hands, my head will swim with waves of anxiety and I will try to convince myself to publish…..