Addiction comes in many forms and is usually derived as a coping mechanism for some type of pain in our lives. Perfectionists are all too aware of the pain that comes from living in a world that is imperfect. Trying to live under the illusion that somehow we can make an imperfect world perfect if we just push harder and do better can be emotionally excruciating.
So how do perfectionists cope with that pain? Often they turn to one type of “vice” or another. The more pain they experience, the more they turn to their coping mechanisms. Then tolerance builds and addiction forms.
What is Perfectionism?
Just to be clear about what perfectionism truly means in relation to coping and addiction, I found this definition from AlcoholRehab.com to be very helpful: “Perfectionism can be defined as a propensity for being displeased with anything that is not perfect or does not meet extremely high standards.”
Being a recovering perfectionist myself, I have found that this definition translates into me feeling as if everything I do must be flawless, topnotch and unquestionable. When people question my work, I find myself becoming instantly defensive. It’s painful. I feel the urge to cope through some mechanism to relieve the main. That’s addiction.
Another way perfectionism affects me—and those around me—is that I set unreasonably high standards for myself and others. When I don’t perform up to my standards, I become critical of myself. The same is true when someone else doesn’t reach my high standards. Resentment builds, which is painful for everyone.
It’s not hard to see how quickly perfectionistic beliefs and behaviors can transform into real emotional pain. If one seeks perfection in their body image, it can transform into physical pain as well. So the benefit of working a program of recovery for perfectionism is that when I find myself slipping back into perfectionistic attitudes, I have my Higher Power to hold me accountable. That means that a friend, sponsor or even folks at a meeting can help me do what I cannot do by myself.
Are you thinking you can do it by yourself? That might be a sign that, like me, you struggle with perfectionism. In which case, I might offer the hard-won lesson that comes from experience. Perfectionists cannot recover by themselves.
Another statement from AlcoholRehab.com hits it on the nose: “Perfectionists can sabotage their own efforts to build a new life in recovery.” Perfectionism can become your worst enemy when trying to recover from addiction. This is especially true for perfectionists who tend to want to “go it alone,” since no one else can do it as well as they think they can.
What happens then? Isolation.
An Imperfect Recovery
Recovery from any addiction cannot be perfect. The 12 Steps speak to the point that we should not even seek perfection. Instead we should seek progress. Progress means that we will experience setbacks but we nonetheless keep moving forward in our recovery.
When a recovering perfectionist realizes that progress is “good enough,” they begin to experience relief from the pain that so often plagued them. After all, it’s not easy to live in an imperfect world with imperfect people—especially when we ourselves cannot be perfect no matter how hard we strive.
When pain is relieved, so is the need to cope. No longer needing to cope means our addiction to that coping mechanism can begin to fade. Furthermore, no longer being addicted means we open ourselves to a more realistic goodness. And that, well…that just feels good.