Consider two people for a moment:
- Megan: Megan is an athletic woman in her mid-30s with long, dark brown hair that’s usually pulled up in a neat ponytail or bun. Her desk at work consists of a pristinely polished desktop computer, a few smiling photos and an organizer containing pens, paper clips, a stapler and pair of scissors. Everything has its place on the surface, including her daily “To Do” list written in neat lettering. Megan is always dressed sharply and her coworkers and boss see her has smart, efficient, organized and productive.
- Ashley: Ashley is tall and very thin with hollowed out eyes. She has been addicted to benzos and opiates for nearly seven years. She makes it to work every day but is often disheveled and distracted. Ashley hasn’t been keeping up with her daily tasks the way she used to, and some days struggles to focus during meetings. Her coworkers and boss see her as less reliable and inefficient. Ashley knows she may lose her job.
From the surface, it may seem as though Ashley and Megan have nothing in common: One strives to maintain order and control – and is very successful, while the other seems to be losing everything to addiction. However, Ashley and Megan may have more in common than you might think.
One of the hidden, underlying characteristics of addiction is perfectionism.
Perfectionism In Addiction
It may seem convoluted: Perfectionists strive for achievement and thrive off of competition, right? They stretch to obtain the best things in life – not drugs and alcohol… right?
Perfectionism tends to be a common characteristic for many people who find themselves in active addiction. Perfectionists hold themselves to high standards – most of the time, impossibly high standards; anything that does is not perfect or does not meet these incredibly high standards causes extreme displeasure. Perfectionists:
- Feel an overpowering need to be flawless
- Set excessively high standards for themselves
- Constantly criticize their own performance
- Crave the appraisal of others
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Perfectionism can be at the root of great success and achievement – as well as at the root of great struggles.
Underneath drug and alcohol addiction, many people find that they’ve held unrealistic expectations for themselves, for loved ones and for events in their lives. Because perfectionists in active addiction often find that the pain of imperfection is greater than the joy of perfection – they give up and check out on life by using drugs or alcohol.
Linking Perfectionism And Addiction
- Those in active addiction believe they’re only lovable and worthy if they are perfect. Imperfection drives shame – and past mistakes become impossible to shake. Because perfection is impossible, they become their own worst critic and turn to drugs, alcohol and compulsive behaviors in order to cope with the crippling feelings of failure.
- Even when things are going great, perfectionists will find the flaws. The slightest mistake can cause a perfectionist to unravel and beat themselves up. This same mentality can translate into addiction – one bad decision or slip up can spiral into discounting any progress and sabotaging success. Perfection and addiction become an “all or nothing” scenario.
- Perfectionists and those in active addiction see what others can do – and push themselves to do more.
- Perfectionism drives people to expect flawlessness – even though they may logically understand it’s impossible. This type of thinking is similar to those in active addiction who may logically know they may need help – but believe that they can achieve things on their own.
- Both addiction and perfectionism drive others away: Perfectionists impose unrealistically high standards for their loved ones, eventually causing isolation. Those in active addiction fear the criticism and disappointment of family members and friends, and eventually push them away or isolate.
- “If I can’t be the best at it, then I don’t even want to try it.” The fear of not succeeding perfectly is enough to hold perfectionists back from trying new things – and enough to hold those in active addiction from getting help and entering recovery.
Perfectionism Supports Addiction
Not all perfectionists will develop an addiction – just like not everyone with a drug or alcohol addiction is a perfectionist. However, the thinking of a perfectionist can support addiction – just like addictive thinking can support perfectionism.
Perfectionism causes consistent feelings of frustration, discouragement and shame that can lead those with addiction to a drink or drug in order to cope. Perfectionism also distorts views of reality that can lead to denial and dysfunctional thinking – promoting addiction and interfering with recovery.
Recovering From Perfectionism And Addiction
A perfectionist mentality can certainly hinder the road to recovery – but in some ways, it can also help. Managing your perfectionism mindset in recovery means:
- Being willing to trust in the process of getting help – and trusting those who want to help
- Being able to accept that goals are not always rigid – sometimes they need to change
- Being willing to let go
- Developing realistic expectation – it takes time, energy and effort to recover from addiction: There’s no way to rush the process and be “first”
- Feeling good about taking the steps to get help and getting on the path to recovery
- Recognizing that other people aren’t perfect either
- Acknowledging the small accomplishments and achievements – noting your success will allow you to continue with your recovery