What is perfectionism?
Perfectionism is not the healthy pursuit of excellence; it’s the consistent expectation that we meet unrealistically high standards. It’s impossible to always do our best, and holding ourselves to a constant standard of perfection will only lead to frustration and low self-esteem. Perfectionism is a common problem. If you can’t stand mistakes and consistently hold unrealistic standards for yourself and others, you probably have perfectionist tendencies. If issues of perfectionism aren’t addressed, they can inhibit your recovery.
Who are perfectionists?
In general, perfectionists settle for no less than the very highest standards
of performance both from themselves and others. In this way they differ from people who strive for excellence in healthy ways by taking pleasure in pursuing their goals.
Bill W., cofounder of AA, once described alcoholics as “all or nothing” people. We know from decades of recovery studies that the addict’s central problem is “self-will run riot.” Bill W. saw that alcoholics often try to overcome their personal limitations by playing God. This behavior results in more problems because people can’t “will” themselves perfect. Constant perfection is an unattainable goal.
What does perfectionism have to do with your recovery?
If you believe you should be perfect, you’ll have a very strong desire to try to control your addiction with sheer willpower—and decades of experience tell us this won’t work. Your will is not enough; you must look outside yourself for the help you need to preserve your ongoing recovery.
Step Three requires us to surrender our will and control to our Higher Power. We must be willing to accept the fact that we have limitations and that we need help to succeed in our recovery.
If your character includes a perfectionistic streak, you may also be more vulnerable and sensitive to the opinions and criticism of others. If you learned early in life that others valued you because of how much you achieved, or how smart, successful, or popular you were, you may have learned to judge yourself critically, based on external standards. You may even see yourself as worthless if you don’t achieve your goals.
If you think that you must be perfect to be acceptable to yourself and others, then you’ll add loads of unnecessary stress and anxiety to your life. Most people don’t judge us as harshly as we judge ourselves. We can reduce our stress by choosing to think, “I don’t need approval from everyone all the time. It’s okay for me to make mistakes, though I prefer not to. Mistakes are an opportunity to learn and improve.”
Think about success in a different way. If you are handling yourself with integrity and honesty, and are putting all your positive energy into something, then take pride in the journey. Don’t let anxiety and worry about the “what-if ’s” stress you out. You might want to join a new AA group or a book or movie club, but you have fears that you might stutter or look foolish, and then people won’t like you. You might procrastinate about showing up for a meeting for fear of failure: will you be smart enough and meet others’ expectations? Realize that it’s all right if you make a few mistakes. You don’t have to be better than everyone else all the time. We are all works in progress, and we’re all in different stages of our lives.
Perfectionists don’t just demand perfection from themselves, they also have high demands from the world and all the people in it. As perfectionists, we will try to control people and events, and then become frustrated when things occur that are beyond our command. We may even feel a compulsion to control others and improve them to meet our standards of excellence or achievement. This is a self-defeating behavior that limits our relationships with others. If our expectations are always unrealistically high, we become intolerant of others’ mistakes. This leaves us stressed and disappointed and makes others feel unaccepted and judged.
Will the twelve steps help you with perfectionism?
The Twelve Steps teach us to accept our limitations as imperfect human beings. Accepting ourselves and others is critical to our recovery. To truly recover we need to see ourselves for who we are, let go of our ego and pride, and reach out to others for help. None of this can happen when we are pursuing our own will instead of listening to our Higher Power.
What can you do about perfectionism?
If you cling to perfectionism in your recovery it could set you up for relapse. For example, you may think that your abstinence should be perfect, and anything less means that you, as a person, are a total failure.
To begin, you’ll need to challenge the self-defeating thoughts and behaviors that fuel perfectionism. These strategies may help:
- set realistic and reachable goals based on your own wants and needs. Make sure the goals are reasonable by measuring them against your past achievements and performance when you were at your best. As you reach one goal, then you can set the next goal at a higher level. Setting realistic goals will lead to a greater sense of achievement and self-esteem.
- rethink your idea of success. Think about any goal you would love to achieve. Instead of being dissatisfied with anything less than your ultimate idea of success, think about how significant it is to achieve even 50 percent of your goal. Give yourself some credit for the smaller successes—as long as you are achieving steps along the way to your goal, you’re succeeding.
- enjoy the journey. Think about success not only as achieving grand goals, but respect the energy, integrity, and time that you dedicate to your journey along the way.
- recognize the power of mistakes. Mistakes are a great opportunity to learn. Think of a recent mistake you have made and list what you learned from it.
- confront your fears. Many of us who are perfectionists are afraid that we don’t stack up against expectations—our own or others’. Give yourself a reality check by asking, “Have I set up impossible expectations for myself?” “What am I afraid of? What is the worst thing that could happen?”