The link between perfectionism and addiction has been well studied and documented. Many who struggle with addiction also struggle with perfectionism. This is because those with perfectionism have constant feelings of shame and guilt over not living up to their own unrealistic expectations. Self-esteem is gained through having realistic expectations of oneself, and if those expectations are too high, self-esteem plummets at each failed attempt at being “perfect.”
Perfectionism and addiction are closely associated in a few obvious ways. First, the shame and guilt associated with failed attempts at being perfect often results in self-defeating behaviors such as abusing drugs and alcohol to overcome the feelings associated with not being good enough. Second, perfectionists often use the all-or-nothing approach to life and this translates into their relationship with substances. They either consume fully or not at all.
When addicts and alcoholics go to addiction treatment and get sober, they learn that they have to abstain from all mind and mood altering substances. This coincides well with their perfectionistic tendencies, but can be detrimental to someone who has had a relapse. For example, if an addict with a streak of perfectionism experiences a slip, they often plunge back into full-blown addiction because they have already imperfected their sobriety. The thought pattern is often “I have already messed up, so I might as well keep going.” In other words, when they have become imperfect, they perfect their imperfection by plunging fully into drug or alcohol use because they believe they have already ruined everything. This is often seen among smokers, drugs addicts, alcoholics and those with food addictions and eating disorders. One small slip and they continue consume as they did in full-blown addiction before drug and alcohol treatment.
The key to overcoming this is awareness of one’s own perfectionism and learning how to set realistic expectations of oneself. If there is a slip, it can be quarantined to that particular slip by forgiving oneself rather than the self punishing tendency to ruin it all and go full throttle back into the addiction. By setting realistic expectations of oneself and therefore improving self-esteem, addicts and alcoholics can use their perfectionism to support their recovery rather than sabotage it.
This can start with New Year’s resolutions. Rather than setting hard to achieve, all-or-nothing goals, they can set softer goals with mechanisms built in to refresh the resolutions at any moment. For example, setting a New Year’s resolution to quit smoking or engage in more active 12-step service are viable. But if there is a slip one day, the resolution itself shouldn’t become null and void. This is why “one day at a time” is such a useful recovery tool. The next day is a new day, a new time to re-set the goal, a new opportunity to remain abstinent from any substance or behavior – whether it is officially New Years Day or not.