All or Nothing How to Avoid the Trap of Perfectionism in Recovery

Maybe you suspect this about yourself. Maybe you know it. But when you’re in recovery, doesn’t it often seem as if you’re gripped by the same type of obsession you once displayed toward drug or alcohol seeking and use? In a way, it’s very hard to change our behaviors – even when it’s for the good.

There is nothing wrong with striving to do the right thing for your recovery. Let’s be very clear about that. What gets people into trouble is when they become obsessive in their search for perfection in recovery. None of us is perfect. To pretend we are or to strive to be perfect is a zero-sum game. Here’s how to rid yourself of the all or nothing way of thinking and avoid the trap of perfectionism in recovery.

Take the Long View

It’s often been said that recovery isn’t a race, but an ongoing process. You live recovery. It isn’t something that you should feel compelled to achieve by throwing all your energies into its pursuit. This type of compulsive behavior will make you nuts – and physically exhausted. A much better way to look at recovery and your role in achieving a long-lasting sobriety is to think of it as a journey.

Okay, so you don’t know what the future will bring. Who among us does? Still, you have chosen sobriety. You have made the decision and taken the steps to get clean and sober, so you have made a great deal of progress already. Of course it hasn’t been easy. Overcoming substance abuse or process addictions such as compulsive gambling, compulsive sexual behavior, compulsive spending, work addiction and compulsive eating disorder can be very difficult, painful, and involve many months of therapy.

Don’t you owe it to yourself to have all the advantages that come with proceeding slowly in recovery? It really does make your daily life a lot easier to handle if you concentrate on taking care of what you need to do today – and not worrying or obsessing about what may happen in the future.

By giving yourself the long view, you alleviate the pressure and stress that can build up when you think you haven’t achieved certain accomplishments or milestones already. Remember that each day is a building block, adding to the strength and security of your foundation of recovery. So, take the long view and then focus on what you can do today to help firm up your recovery tools.

Allow Think Time between Recovery Tasks

Rushing ahead pell-mell is never a good thing. On the one hand, there’s no time to evaluate the potential risk/reward of such action. On the other, there’s no time for reflection on what else you might be doing – or should be doing – to help you gain better understanding of or skill in working various aspects of your recovery plan.

When a carpenter is building a wall or constructing a house, one of the absolute requirements is to measure twice and cut once. If something’s off, re-measuring is necessary before any work can continue. While this may be a bit of a stretch for use as an analogy to how you work recovery, it’s close. Here’s why. You want to weigh and balance one set of choices against another. Look at all the plusses and minuses of doing this action versus that one. Think also about what has worked well for you in the past, as well as what didn’t work out as well as you hoped. Then make modifications (re-measure, if you will) so that your plan can morph into something that’s living and breathing and allows you to take advantage of all the information you have gleaned thus far.

Practically speaking, just set aside some time – maybe a half hour or just 10 minutes in a crunch – to think about what it is that you’ve accomplished so far and how it dovetails with what you’re about to do next. If there’s a disconnect, then make adjustments so you get back on track.

Let’s say that you’re at work and plan to go to a 12-step meeting at lunchtime that will take at least 15 minutes to get to and from. Then your boss hands you a huge project or there’s a work emergency and you won’t be able to get to your meeting. Do you not go to the meeting? Do you go anyway and ignore the request of your boss? Or do you take some time to think and find an alternate meeting location, one that’s closer to your job, so that you can both accommodate your need to attend a meeting and be responsible about your work duties? This is what we mean by allowing time to think between recovery tasks.

Work is a necessary part of recovery – since when we are able to take care of ourselves and our family obligations by being gainfully employed we are making progress in recovery. And going to meetings is also an essential part of our recovery process. So, both work and meetings can be classified as recovery tasks for purposes of allowing think time between them.

The other benefit of giving yourself some think time is that it takes some of the pressure off. Lessening pressure and tension is another way to avoid falling into the trap of perfectionism in recovery.

Make Time to Enjoy Free Time

When you think of someone who obsesses, the image is usually one of a person who never takes any time off. These aren’t just workaholics, either. Every person is capable of doing themselves a disservice by failing to give themselves a break. Just as you need food and water and adequate sleep, you also need some down time to whatever it is that – within bounds and in accordance with your recovery plan – gives you pleasure.

Taking some time each day to go outside and garden is one way to enjoy your free time, that is, if you’re a gardener and really love working with plants and flowers. Maybe you really love playing catch or a game of softball with the kids, or going to the nearby nature preserve or city or state park to hike. Maybe it’s a hobby that gets you excited. Even solitary activities such as reading are great ways to give your mind a break and allow the cobwebs to clear out while you do something you really like.

Enjoying free time doesn’t have to take all day. It can be short 10 to 20 minute breaks, or an hour, or, if time and your schedule permits, the greater part of a day or evening. Sure, you do need to fit free time in with your recovery schedule, but don’t think of it as a luxury. You have to revive your batteries, so to speak, and what better way to do that than taking part in an activity that gives you enjoyment?

How does making time to enjoy free time help you avoid the trap of perfectionism? That’s easy. Instead of obsessing over trying to be perfect, you’re doing something that lifts your spirits, makes you feel good, and allows the pressure and stresses to evaporate.

Make Schedules but Avoid becoming Regimental

Going to work, attending 12-step meetings, seeing your counselor or therapist, keeping doctors’ appointments, running errands, spending time with the family – it sure helps to have a daily schedule to keep things organized. In fact, recovery experts say creating and adhering to daily schedules is an important strategy in early recovery. This is the time when you’re most likely to need the security of always knowing what you need to do next. Keeping your focus on recovery-oriented activities and tasks is paramount during the first 90 days to six months of sobriety.

But it’s also wise to keep in mind that you can and should make your schedules, but don’t allow yourself to become rigid or regimental about what you do. In other words, it’s important that you don’t just do these things automatically and without any thought. You also can’t be a slave to your schedule. Be flexible enough so that you can incorporate new activities into your schedule as opportunities arise. You also have to be open-minded enough to recognize them as opportunities instead of seeing them as interruptions or negatives.

How do you make schedules but avoid becoming too rigid or regimental about them? One way is to put some “air” in your schedule. What is that? Allocate some “breathing” time between tasks. That way, if one runs a little bit over – say, you get into a really good discussion with your 12-step sponsor and fellow group members and the meeting runs a little long – you still have some time to accommodate the next item on your schedule, or can call to make arrangements for a later arrival.

There’s always a way to take care of what you need to do in recovery without becoming overly anxious or obsessive about doing these actions. The good thing about schedules is that they’re a handy tool. You always know what’s on your list. But when you’re flexible and can accommodate change and welcome opportunities to advance your recovery, you’re also helping to avoid the trap of perfectionism.\

Be Diverse with Your Social Network

You’ve heard it more than once that you need to find new friends in recovery. The old ones, those with whom you previously drank, did drugs, gambled, or engaged in other forms of addiction, simply have no part in your newfound sobriety. Sure, it’s not easy to let go of longstanding friendships, but if your former friends have not embraced recovery, they aren’t ready and to be around them will only jeopardize your own sobriety.

But finding new friends doesn’t have to be the onerous challenge many make it out to be. Instead of worrying about how and where and when and if you’ll be able to find new friends, just go out and start interacting with people who are clean and sober. You can find these people in many places.

Let’s start with neighborhood groups. There are parents of your children’s friends that you could interact with. Maybe there’s an annual block party or barbeque that all the neighbors are invited to. Perhaps you can get involved with the parent-teacher association at your child’s school or take part in your child’s sports program. Meeting other parents at your child’s hockey or baseball game is one natural way to spark conversation and interaction with others.

There are also recreational activity groups you can join, such as local ski clubs, fishing clubs, rock climbing and hiking clubs. Whatever the outdoor activity, there’s probably a group that is nearby you can join. Like plays or want to consider acting? Check out your community theater or actor’s group. Also consider book reading groups, hobbyist groups, cooking classes. The list is endless. Whatever you really like to do, find a group you can join that will bring you in contact with others who share similar tastes.

Being with people who are clean and sober extends beyond your 12-step group. Be conscious to only surround yourself with friends who respect your sobriety goals and where there isn’t drinking and drug use.

Diversification of your social network helps you become a better-rounded and less one-dimensional person. It also helps you avoid falling into the trap of perfectionism in recovery.

Get Counseling to Overcome Roadblocks

Some in recovery have to contend with underlying psychological difficulties either brought on by or exacerbated by chronic drug or alcohol abuse, or that may have existed prior to addiction. Others may feel the obsession and tendency to strive for being perfect occurs only when they begin recovery. In any case, when you find that you’re unable to counteract these tendencies to obsess about being perfect, additional counseling may be a great benefit.

Therapists have many tools to use to help you overcome such feelings. Some may involve cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or other forms of psychotherapy. You may do one-on-one counseling and participate in group therapy. Perhaps medication may be prescribed for certain emotional conditions that include depression or anxiety in addition to obsession over being perfect.

It isn’t that you have to be in therapy for the rest of your life. Think of therapy or counseling as another tool to help you overcome any temporary roadblocks and strengthen your abilities in recovery. Therapy can help you realize the benefits of the hard work you are already doing everyday in your sobriety.

Share Dreams with Your Loved Ones

While family has been mentioned previously, we’ve saved the best for last. You know that your family – specifically your spouse or partner, but also your children and other close family members – are the most important support network you can have. The other is, of course, your 12-step group.

An integral part of your recovery support system is also the best opportunity for you to experience love and joy and continued growth. How is that? Besides sharing physical intimacy with your spouse or partner, you should also feel comfortable enough to share your dreams. This helps cement the bond between you, gives you things to talk about, and creates an opportunity for you both to create goals that accommodate your recovery and the solidity of your relationship.

After all, recovery is and should be a time of discovery. We want to share our discoveries and our good fortune with those we love the most and with whom we share a great deal. Who better to appreciate our dreams and to share theirs in return than our spouse or partner? Love really does make the world go round. We need to love ourselves and others in order to realize the full benefits of how this works. We can start by sharing our dreams with our family.

Creativity blooms when we give it room to grow. Dreams can become reality – especially when they are shared and discussed and plans drawn up to achieve them. You can’t be in the trap of perfectionism if you’re communicating and sharing with love.

And isn’t living life with joy and love in recovery what being clean and sober is all about? Start with these seven tips on how to avoid the trap of perfectionism in recovery and branch out from there. As you do, you learn. As you learn, you grow.

There is still hope.

Our licensed addiction experts can help. Call us today for a confidential assessment.


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