Changing Addictive Behavior: The Perils and Promise of Perfectionism

By Thaddeus Camlin, Psy.D.

an image of a abblerina to symbolize perfectionism in recovery from addiction

For many, perfectionism is a guilty pleasure – we know it isn’t good for us but we can’t seem to let it go.  Well, difficulty in letting something go is almost always a sign of that thing being beneficial in some ways, and perfectionism is no different.  When it comes to changing addictive behavior, perfectionism is not only common, but often demanded.  People are routinely kicked out of treatment for not being perfect, or at least coerced into stepping up to a higher (more expensive) level of care.  Because perfectionism is demanded of people attempting to change addictive behavior, it might be worth exploring the concept a bit further.

Perfectionism As a Measure of Success in Changing Addictive Behavior

There is arguably no arena in which perfection is held as the measure of success so much as it is in addiction.  In sports, nobody expects their favorite athlete to score a 10.0 on every dive, dance, or routine, or never throw an interception, or never fumble, or never miss a shot, or block every goal, or never strike out.  In finance, nobody expects a broker to turn a profit on every single investment.  In medicine, symptom reductions are hailed as treatment successes.  In marketing, products are frequently promoted on the notion that nine out of 10 experts recommend them.  But if you have a drinking problem you must never have a beer again, 100% of the time, forever, always, otherwise…  you failed!

The Nature of Perfectionism

Research into perfectionism tends to focus on problems and pathology (as psychology & psychiatry too often do).  The focus of perfectionism research on problems reflects expectancy bias and likely contributed to findings that correlated perfectionism with depression, suicide, anxiety, addiction, eating disorders, personality disorders, pretty much all the wonderful conditions found in the DSM.  Understanding the nature of perfectionism helps shed some light on what parts of it work for us and what parts don’t.  Perfectionism is not pathology.

When some science-minded researchers at Johns Hopkins questioned the problem-oriented research lens used for perfectionism they found some interesting results.  Rather than another problem to be diagnosed and treated, perfectionism has its upsides and we probably benefit more from harnessing its potential than eliminating its existence.  Goals of stopping, eliminating, or avoiding anything altogether are setups for failure. Working with perfectionism will yield far batter results than attempting to conquer it – and indeed, in a broader sense, working with ourselves and others yields superior results than attempting to conquer.

The Johns Hopkins researchers found that, when it comes to perfectionism, there are two general types – healthy perfectionism and dysfunctional perfectionism.  Healthy perfectionistic types are generally organized, have high personal standards, are not overly concerned about mistakes, have low self-doubt, report minimal parental criticism, are agreeable, extraverted, and conscientious.  Dysfunctional perfectionistic types show inordinate concern about mistakes, excessive self-doubt, concern for parental criticism, and are generally anxious and disagreeable.

Distinguishing between healthy perfectionism and dysfunctional perfectionism provides useful information in discerning how to harness the benefits of perfectionistic tendencies.  People usually do not want to ‘lower the bar’ for themselves, and efforts to ‘let go’ of perfectionism are understandably perceived as efforts to accept what someone close to me calls a “warm bath of mediocrity.” We know that we maximize our potential by pushing ourselves to our limits, not accepting ‘good enough,’ and striving to improve.

Rather than lowering our standards, we can work on settling for excellence and increasing time spent having fun and relaxing.  We can aim at abstinence as long as we’re willing to accept a 99%, 95%, even an 85% or 80% success rate.  Embracing healthy perfectionism will help us get as close to our best as possible.  Rejecting the part of ourselves that pushes us to outdo ourselves puts us at risk of settling for what some call the “soft bigotry of low expectations.”

To be human is to be imperfect.  Voltaire claimed that perfection is the enemy of the good.  It is hard to argue with Voltaire, however, perfection might help us push the good into the realm of great as long as we don’t see great as a failure in our effort to get as close to perfection as possible.  The truth is that contentment can be as much a vortex of underachievement as perfectionism.

Glimpses of Perfection

The first draft is usually pretty rough, the demo tape is usually an underdeveloped skeleton of the hit single, the first public speech is usually punctuated by stutters, the first attempt at changing addictive behavior usually doesn’t go perfectly according to plan.  The closest we humans get to perfection usually comes from the refining combustion of doing over and over and over and over again and again and again and again until, for a brief, fleeting moment of magical serendipity we simultaneously forget and remember all our history, training, and effort in a flash of exuberant transcendence that disappears before we realize we had it. Perfection is something we can glimpse, not sustain. Persisting in our efforts, most importantly after perceived failures, is the most certain way to maximize the glimpses of perfection we attain in our lifetime.

If you or a loved one are looking for addiction treatment that embraces small steps toward success, rather than requiring perfect recovery, please give us a call. We can help you reach your goals.