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The Perils of Perfection

“That was perfect!” It feels really good to get this kind of response – from others or from ourselves – in assessment of an accomplishment, a behavior, or a task that we completed. It’s in our human nature to enjoy both the personal satisfaction and the pride of receiving highly positive appraisals from others.

But what if we care too much about such evaluations? In excess, the pursuit of excellence can backfire. It can go from a motivational, encouraging intention to do our best, to a harsh taskmaster that requires our utmost best at all times – lest we deem ourselves as failures and experience disappointment and shame when we fall short.

No one knows this better than an addict.

Perfectionism and Addiction

Mark Kastleman, addictions expert and co-author of Achieving the Balance: Your Ideal Life is Waiting (2004, Lifebalance Institute Press), wrote in an online article Perfectionism Fuels Addiction:

“It sounds like a glaring contradiction, a cruel paradox, but it’s absolutely true–most addicts are obsessed with perfection! They perceive that in order to be of any real value, to be loved and accepted, they have to be perfect. And when the pursuit of perfection wears them out, they seek escape through addiction. This then piles on the guilt and shame.”

The link between perfectionism and addiction is well documented. Alcoholics Anonymous, for example, includes perfectionistic put-downs in its description of “stinkin’ thinkin.”

The self-defeating inner dialogues and negative self-assessments associated with perfectionism include the following irrational assumptions:

  • Rigid, “all or nothing” thinking (perfection with total success or failure are the only two options; there is no in-between).
  • Overgeneralization (words like “must”, “always”, “never” rule behavior).
  • Discounting one’s positive attributes and exaggerating the negative ones.
  • Goals are set unreasonably high. They’re either impossible to meet – leading to shame and guilt – or they’re full of avoidance and procrastination to protect one’s self from the sting of failure.
  • Defensiveness about feedback; resistant to suggestion.
  • Over-identification with outcomes–goals and projects are too tied to self-esteem.
  • Need for approval; “people pleasing” behaviors, especially toward the people one is closest to.

How Perfectionism Can Derail Your Recovery Efforts

Expecting perfection from yourself or from others, as perfectionists often do, is a recipe for disaster when it comes to recovery. Recovery requires a day-to-day commitment to progress, and at the same time recognition that the road is bumpy and setbacks do occur. To remain motivated, you cannot let a temporary setback or mistake become an excuse for giving up. The suggestion to strive for “progress not perfection” is common in recovery treatment programs.

Some of the dangers of being perfectionistic about recovery are:

  • Inevitable setbacks and mistakes that occur can lead to depression and reduced motivation to stay with a recovery program.
  • Rigid, all-or-nothing thinking and unrealistic expectations lead to excessive stress, hindering performance and lowering self-esteem. This easily becomes a self-perpetuating negative cycle that can trigger relapse.
  • Over-emphasis on outcomes, goals and achievement takes the fun out of daily living. Becoming sober should lead to living life to its fullest and experiencing joy; it should not merely be about success or failure. Without joy, there is more temptation to “numb” feelings with substances, and a greater risk for relapse.

Ways to Overcome Perfectionistic Tendencies

If you recognize that you have some perfectionistic tendencies, take heart. Like any trait, perfectionism is only problematic when taken to extremes. Striving for the best is different from insisting on the best, or else…and even perfectionists recognize that it is not humanly possible to be perfect at everything all the time.

So lighten up; give yourself some breathing room without feeling guilty about it. Use rational thinking to debunk irrational beliefs that lead to negative self-evaluations and feelings of being “not good enough.” Instead, assess the “evidence” for harsh appraisals of yourself.

What catastrophe will occur if you don’t meet each and every goal with the utmost of success? Where can you compromise and be less insistent on perfection? Re-think your attitude about the link between being perfect and feeling good about yourself. Recognize that it is an association you created in your own mind; it is not accurate in objective reality. Decide to change rigid, self-destructive attitudes and beliefs. You created them and you have the power to un-create them!

Here are some additional ways to purge a perfectionist attitude:

  • Celebrate small accomplishments. Recognize the value in appreciating little steps you’ve taken in a positive direction. The acknowledgement lifts your self-esteem and increases motivation. From little steps greater goals become manifested.
  • Consider adopting a “good enough” attitude. Rather than being critical of others who may be less than perfect, learn to value their approach and consider adopting it.
  • Observe how their more casual approach works for them. Do they accomplish their most important goals despite their lack of perfection? Do they appear to be having more fun while doing it?
  • Enlist your support systems. Let others know that you are trying out a new approach. Ask that they not take advantage of your tendency to seek perfection (co-workers letting you do more of the work because you do a more thorough job etc.). Ask close friends to gently remind you when you fall back into perfectionistic habits.

Leaving Perfectionism Behind

Perfectionism is a learned trait; you weren’t born that way. What you learned can be unlearned…once you recognize that it is not working for your highest good.

Letting go of perfectionism does not mean letting go of your standards. It simply means being kind to yourself, being realistic about yourself and your goals, and allowing yourself to feel good about yourself – no matter how your plans may turn out.

Image Courtesy of Shutterstock

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