Perfectionism and Substance Addiction


Nobody is perfect. Over 60 years ago, J. B. Phillips wrote (in Your God is Too Small): “Of all the false gods there is probably no greater nuisance in the spiritual world than the ‘god of one hundred per cent.’ …  This one-hundred-per-cent standard is a real menace [which] has led quite a number of sensitive, conscientious people to what is popularly called a ‘nervous breakdown.'”

The same standard has also led quite a number of people into both substance abuse and relapse. A recent Google search for “perfectionism and substance abuse” turned up well over 100,000 results, including a PsychCentral article by Dr. David Sack of Elements Behavioral Health, who noted, “It is often black-or-white thinking that drives the unhealthy thought and behavior patterns behind a number of addictions and mental health disorders. … The addict believes they are only loveable and worthy if they are perfect. … 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'”–an open invitation to self-fulfilling prophecy.

Nobody Is Perfect, and Slip-Ups Are Not Failures

Sack continues: “The perfectionist misinterprets the message of abstinence [as] a black-or-white concept … [instead of grasping] 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.”

Certainly, not all addicts are perfectionists, nor vice versa; in many cases, “I’d better never foul up” thinking has kept someone from touching addictive substances in the first place. On the other hand, letting perfectionism run one’s life–especially when one has practiced it for years and hasn’t seen the expected reward of reaching a level where everything easily goes according to plan–can engender serious mental or physical pain which seems to justify chemical remedies. Which may lead to a new perfectionism-related problem in the form of “any pain is unacceptable [not least because it slows my achievement speed] and must be immediately obliterated.”

Is Perfectionism an Addiction?

Nor would it be exaggerating to say that perfectionism is an addiction in itself. You may have that problem if any of the following statements sound familiar:

  • “Sure, I got the highest score, but it was only 95 out of 100.”
  • “I’ve been lucky so far, but it’s just a matter of time till the world learns what a fraud I am.”
  • “Why should so-and-so cancel our appointment just because the streets are flooded? When make a promise I go to the end of the world to keep it.”
  • “I went to a lot of trouble to finish this, and I expect some recognition for it!”
  • “I tried that program for a week once, and it didn’t do anything I could see.”
  • “That goal was too easy to achieve; I must not have set it high enough.”
  • “I can handle anything if I just try a little harder.”
  • “People will hate me if I admit I was wrong.”
  • “I don’t dare try this; I might fail.”

If that sort of thinking has kept you afraid to try a recovery program–or even if you’re just considering turning to chemical solutions for chronic frustration and despair–implement some of the following principles into your life first. (What have you got to lose, if you’re already miserable and feeling like a failure?)

Seek Out Human Support

If you can’t bring yourself to visit a therapist or support group yet, call the most understanding friend or family member you know (even if you haven’t spoken in years) and explain that you need a “shoulder to cry on.” Then, after you unload your problems, listen to what they have to say in return–especially the things that set your defensive mechanisms bristling. A caring ear will help you put things in perspective and plan your next step.

Celebrate Small Victories

Really, what’s wrong with a 95 percent score–or even 60 percent? Neither is anywhere near zero. Pat yourself on the back for what you got right; post a “Hooray for Me!” note on your favorite social media account; toast progress with a cup of hot chocolate.

Remember, having the courage to try something new is a victory in itself, no matter how good or poor the showing you make.

Consider the Long-Term Value of the “Imperfection” Approach

Dr. Sack notes: “Even if perfectionism breeds success, it rarely leads to happiness” in the way healthy relationships and self-appreciation do. He goes on to conclude his article (which is subtitled “Why ‘Good Enough’ Is the Gold Standard in Recovery”) with, “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.”

Value Yourself for Who You Are; Others Do

Remind yourself, several times a day, of everyone who appreciates you and of everything they admire in you. Do not tell yourself “they wouldn’t say that if they knew me like I do”; accept their opinions with gratitude, and let mutual appreciation draw you closer.

Value Life for What It Is

Notice the world’s little beauties and blessings; accept without complaint the things that don’t go as you’d hoped. Remember, some people owe their lives to missed busses and cancelled appointments that kept them from being in the wrong place at the wrong time!

Listen to the experts; philosophers and theologians have warned us about the dangers of perfectionism for centuries. Quoting Phillips again, “God is truly Perfection, but He is no Perfectionist, and one hundred per cent is not God.”

And since we definitely are not God, why should we hold ourselves responsible for getting the world, ourselves, or our recovery 100% perfect on the first try? After all, nobody is perfect.

Kemah Palms Recovery® Recognizes that Nobody Is Perfect

With addiction therapy services designed to meet clients where they are in recovery, Kemah Palms Recovery® offers working solutions toward sobriety, including:

Nobody is perfect, and you don’t have to go through the addiction recovery process alone. Call Kemah Palms Recovery® today at 855-568-0218.