What does an addict who has lost everything in their pursuit of drugs and alcohol have in common with the person who has it all – a great job, a loving family and an immaculate home? Although they may appear to come from opposite worlds, perfectionism can be at the root of both great successes and great struggles.
Although paradoxical, where there is addiction there is often perfectionism. Underneath the addiction may be a person whose unrealistic expectations have caused them to give up on their goals and “check out” through drug and alcohol use. Of course, not all addicts are perfectionists, but it is often black-or-white thinking that drives the unhealthy thought and behavior patterns behind a number of addictions and mental health disorders.
Here are some of the ways perfectionism and addiction are linked:
• The addict believes they are only loveable and worthy if they are perfect. They feel ashamed of their shortcomings and past mistakes. When they inevitably fall short of their impossibly high ideals, the harsh self-critic turns to drugs (or other addictive or compulsive behaviors) to cope with the constant feelings of failure or inadequacy.
• Even when life is going well, the perfectionist is never happy. The addict could get treatment, work a recovery program and get back into regular life, but they will focus on the slightest mistake or unexpected shift to discount their progress. Or, mistrustful of success, addicts may tell themselves, “It’s only a matter of time until I fall off the wagon.”
• Perfectionists see what other people can do, and expect themselves to do more. This type of grandiosity also fuels addiction. It is not unusual for addicts to feel different from others or that they play by different rules.
• Even though most perfectionists logically understand that they cannot achieve perfection, they continue to expect it. This type of magical thinking is a common feature of addiction: “Other people may need help, but I can do it on my own.”
• The perfectionist pushes away the people closest to them by imposing the same unrealistic expectations on others. In much the same way, addicts isolate themselves from loved ones to avoid facing criticism or disappointment. Both alienate the very people who are best situated to help them address unhealthy thinking patterns.
• The perfectionist misinterprets the message of abstinence. Indeed, abstinence is a black-or-white concept – addicts are expected to refrain from the use of all mood-altering substances. What the perfectionist doesn’t realize is that abstinence is the long-term goal, and that slip-ups are learning opportunities, not failures. When they expect perfection right from the start, the addict has a difficult time bouncing back from a relapse.
• Perfectionism destroys the addict’s confidence and motivation to heal. Instead, they conclude, “Recovery is too hard. If I can’t do it perfectly, I’d better not even try.” This fear of not being good enough deters some from getting help at all.
Perfectionism can sabotage the addict’s recovery (and overall well-being). Here are a few ways to combat black-or-white thinking and accept a recovery that is “good enough,” not perfect:
Celebrate Small Accomplishments. Perfectionists view themselves as either a success or a failure, nothing in between. In recovery, the grey areas are the most important part of the process. Recovery is a lifelong journey, not a destination. To maintain the hope and motivation needed to succeed long-term, the recovery addict must pause to acknowledge their accomplishments and celebrate their courage and willingness to keep trying even after a setback.
Build Positive Self-Esteem. While it is important to recognize your accomplishments, your self-esteem cannot depend solely on achievements. You are valuable and worthy because of who you are. If you spend more time doing the activities you love, learning new skills and being of service to others rather than being self-critical, you’ll be less likely to beat yourself up over the little things and keep your eye on the big picture.
Lean on Others. Sometimes it’s easier to accept other people’s mistakes than your own. Let others show you how they learn from their mistakes and keep going despite their imperfections – and listen when they point out your irrational beliefs as well as your achievements. Not only can loved ones help you see yourself more clearly, but reaching out for social support will enhance your recovery.
Talk to a Therapist. Some people grow quite fond of their perfectionism. They are proud of their high standards and reason that those standards are both healthy and productive. Our achievement-obsessed culture reinforces this type of thinking. In reality, even if perfectionism breeds success, it rarely leads to happiness. If you can’t seem to counteract all-or-nothing thinking, consider talking with a therapist.
Experiment with Alternatives. Let the small things go at work, be flexible when plans change unexpectedly, allow family members and friends to make mistakes, and see how you feel after a couple weeks. You may be surprised to find that life continues to move forward regardless and no one suffered for it. In fact, it might feel good to relinquish control and stop worrying for a while.
The antidote for perfectionism is not complacency but surrender. There is great pride to be gained by working to improve yourself and your life, but self-improvement must unfold in a way that acknowledges (and even celebrates) your humanity. Recovery does not require perfection. We make mistakes, we learn, we make more mistakes. To deny this reality not only denies our nature, but also hinders your ability to recover from addiction.
Dr. David Sack is board certified in addiction psychiatry and addiction medicine. He is CEO of Elements Behavioral Health, a network of treatment programs for drug addiction, alcoholism, trauma, depression, sex addiction, eating disorders, and other psychiatric issues. You can learn more about Dr. Sack at drdavidsack.com
Balloons photo available from Shutterstock.
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Last reviewed: 2 May 2012