As you leave treatment and step back into your day-to-day life, it’s tempting to believe that you’ll never struggle with addiction again. You won’t see any old using friends; you won’t even feel tempted to use, ever, even once. While this desire for complete recovery is admirable, it’s important to make sure that you’re not setting unrealistic expectations.
You may have heard the 12-Step phrase, “Progress, not perfection.” This is a cornerstone of your recovery for a reason. Unbeknownst to many people, perfectionism is a natural enemy of lasting sobriety – in fact, it’s often the driving factor behind your addiction.
The Personality of the Perfectionist
At first, this may seem like a paradox. When you think of perfectionists, you probably imagine a person with neat to-do lists and a well-organized desk, not someone in the grips of a substance use disorder. What you may not know is that perfectionism and addiction are more interconnected than most people think. This personality trait can fuel unrealistic expectations that spiral when combined with drugs and alcohol.
Perfectionists feel an all-consuming need to be flawless. They set incredibly high standards for themselves and constantly pick apart their performance. Above all else, they crave the approval and praise of others for a job well done. The pain of imperfection can be even greater than the joy of success, which can push many people to substance use.
Why is Perfectionism Dangerous to Recovering Addicts?
The attitude of the perfectionist is exactly calibrated to create and maintain a substance use disorder. They create astronomically high standards for themselves and others, often hinging great weight on their ability to do the impossible. When they eventually fail to meet one of these goals, they’ll spiral and feel a great deal of shame. Many people attempt to bandage this with their substance of choice.
Distorted worldviews, feelings of frustration, and dysfunctional thinking are all hallmarks of perfectionism that can lead to a sustained drug or alcohol problem. When left unchecked, these same tendencies can creep back in during recovery to sabotage your sobriety.
Perfectionism in Addiction Recovery
There are three key elements in which perfectionism relates to an addict’s mindset. Even though someone may be logically aware of the toll their attitude takes on them, they probably don’t fully understand how much perfectionism rules their day-to-day lives.
Shame – Those in active addiction may believe that they’re only worthy if they are perfect; falling short of this can create a lot of shame and guilt. The goal of perfection is, by definition, impossible to meet. When they fall short again and again, it’s not uncommon to turn to drugs and alcohol to cope with those failures. In recovery, it’s vital to reset this mindset to avoid self-medicating as a response to unreasonable standards.
All or Nothing Attitude – Even when things are going well, perfectionists are incredibly adept at picking apart a situation to find its flaws. They then beat themselves up for any perceived shortcomings, even when others can’t understand what has gone wrong. This attitude is particularly dangerous in recovery, because it can cause people to throw their sobriety away from the slightest slip. If perfectionists make one bad decision, they may believe that all of their progress is completely ruined, so there’s no reason not to go on a binge (instead of taking the appropriate steps to reach out to others and begin rebuilding themselves).
Fear of Failure – Finally, perfectionism is characterized by a fear of not succeeding perfectly. A person with this insecurity may say, “If I can’t be the best at it the first time I try it, I don’t even want to make an attempt.” This attitude leads many people to avoid seeking treatment, because they’re worried that they will be unable to succeed flawlessly.
How to Combat the Urge to Perfect
First, understand that small slips in recovery aren’t relapses. You’ll experience a few failures throughout your journey – it’s natural. When these things happen, instead of spiraling and feeling deep shame, reach out to a sponsor or trusted confidant. If applicable, contact your treatment center about receiving additional support. They’ll have a bank of resources available to you.
Next, take steps to make sure that you’re setting realistic expectations for yourself. Ask yourself whether these goals are something you’d recommend to a friend – if you think they’d be unreasonable, reconsider how you perceive success in this task. For example, instead of saying that you’ll dedicate yourself to working out every single night, start smaller and build up. This allows you to celebrate small wins and avoid feeling devastating defeat.
Get Support in Early Recovery
If you or a loved one struggle with perfectionism in addiction recovery, there is hope. Through dedicated CBT, DBT, and EMDR therapies, it’s more possible than ever before to change your approach to sobriety. Contact Segue Recovery today at 866-905-4550 to learn more.