Perfectionism and Addiction: Two Sides of the Same Coin

I recently stumbled upon an article on rethinking perfectionism. The author, Holly Whitaker, is a decade sober after overcoming a chemical addiction to alcohol. In this article she interviews Katherine Morgan Schafler, author of The Perfectionist’s Guide To Losing Control.

As I read the article, I couldn’t help but notice the parallels of perfection and addiction. The maternal side of my family is filled with geniuses, professionals, and entrepreneurs, all with a propensity toward perfectionism. However, amongst the group are others caught in the throes of addiction. Two cousins are recently sober, and others have never touched alcohol in their lives out of fear.

I set up rules for myself, too: I didn’t drink until I was 21, I’ve never drank alone, and I stopped by age 23 because I simply didn’t enjoy alcohol and the pervasive fear of addiction that tainted every sip. While I’ve never experienced addition myself, I’ve seen is up close. However, in reading this article, I wonder now whether my now-outgrown perfectionism was my own form of addition to an unachievable ideal.

“Perfectionism is powerful; it’s a force. Like any power, perfectionism is dichotomous in nature; it can be constructive or destructive, depending on how you manage it. And yes, perfectionism can absolutely be useful.”

Katherine Morgan Schafler

What is Perfectionism?

Perfectionism is this innate human impulse, reflective of our healthy desire to actualize the ideals we imagine in our minds and hearts. So often, we visualize perfectionism as the organized, overachieving “Type A” personality, but that’s not always that case. It can manifest as seeking control over a physical environment, emotional state, or our behaviors. As with any power, perfectionism can be constructive or destructive, depending on how you manage it.

Schafler has observed, as I have, that there is a strong correlation between substance misuse and perfectionism. Based on her research, her theory is that, in both instances, one responds to missteps with punishment instead of compassion. When failing to achieve perfection or falling off the bandwagon, punishment looks like creating more pain for yourself as motivate to stop or start something. Self-compassion, on the other hand, involves a curiosity about how to better support yourself next time, and it’s entirely necessary to grow and succeed.

Failure is Not Final

Over the last decade, we’ve been inundated with articles about how “failure” is an opportunity to learn. Yet, Schafler observes that this does not hold true with addiction and recovery, where relapse is viewed as giving up on the future. In such cases, where the world is looking down on your failure, the best thing you can do is offer yourself some grace and self-compassion.

Dr. Kristen Neff’s 3 step model for self-compassion is referenced. The first step is “kindness” which entails recognizing that you’re in pain, then offering yourself some simple comfort. The next step, “common humanity,” is considering how common your problem is, and realizing that you’re not alone and there is nothing wrong with you. Thirdly, “mindfulness” involves acknowledging and sitting with your difficult feelings. By asking yourself what else you also feel, you don’t allow one singular feeling to eclipse the entirety of your experience and overtake your identity.

No matter who you are or what you do, perfectionist or not, “alcoholic” or not: if you punish yourself, you will stay stuck in your suffering.

Goals and Intentions

A reader wrote to the author asking about how to reframe sobriety from merely counting their days sober. As is the case with any close-to-the-heart objective, it’s useful to abandon goals and, instead, adopt an intention. A goal is a clear and quantifiable achievement–what you are striving for; an intention is more sophisticated–it is the energy and purpose behind your striving.

Celebrating 30 days of sobriety is an achievement, but what is the end goal? The hope may be for quality relationships, deeper authenticity, meaningful work, and new opportunity to learn and grow. Focus more on the intention than the goal.

Defining What’s Important

If we don’t step back and consider what is important to us, personally, we will often default to the culture’s priorities: money, status, efficiency, achievements, etc. In our culture, we celebrate promotions, best-selling books, sports wins, and hitting one million social media follows. Those are all well and good, but what about those small successes that we don’t celebrate.

Schafler believes that celebration, whatever the occasion, is a way of reinforcing your values to yourself. While writing her book, she held a “trying party” to celebrate her efforts to write a book. It can be hard to feel entitled to honor what matters to you, especially when that value isn’t necessarily shared by others, or when you’re not moving through the process “perfectly.” However, celebrating the process (our hapless attempts) and celebrating the outcome (reaching the finish line) aren’t mutually exclusive. We can do both.

The Spectrum of Perfection

When I brought up the topics of this article on a walk with my boyfriend, he shook his head is disagreement. He understood where the author was coming from, but disagreed. Perfection and addition are a spectrum control, he explained, with each representing the unhealthy and manipulative extremes. When we aim to control our situation in the direction of building and progress, it results is perfectionism, and the good and bad that comes with it. When we aim to control our emotions but numbing through substance abuse, it results in addiction.

My extended family is filled with high-achievers. The two cousins recovering from alcoholism? They are both successful entrepreneurs. They push themselves to the limit and then, I suspect, kept pushing until the pressure was overwhelming.

Letting Go

At age 25, I became chronically ill. I had been a classic perfectionist–rigid, organized, controlled, and unyielding. I was leaps and bounds ahead of most peers in terms of achievements, but at what cost? I had a well-paying job, several side hustles, peak fitness, great friends and more, but my “limited sleep and and high-stress”Type A” personality led to minimal sleep and high stress days. I learned the hard way that those habits are not sustainable.

Chronic illness broke my body. But is broke my maladaptive habits. Yes, despite its resultant achievements, perfectionism caused more harm than good.

When you’ve energy drops to 50% and then 20% of your previous capacity, you must cut corners to stay afloat. I strategically cut out the tasks with a high cost and low reward, and reduced my efforts on everything else. I snuffed my tendency toward perfectionism, almost without realizing it, in order to survive. And I did survive. And I realized that I do not need to be perfect.

As I’ve regain energy and strength, my tendency toward perfectionism has not returned. I realize now that “good enough” is good enough and I don’t think there’s any turning back. I’m okay with typos, burned veggeis, and half-assery. I don’t know if it was necessarily self-compassion, but I realized as some point that punishing myself for my shortcomings was a fruitless waste of energy. And in doing so, I was able to let go.

16 thoughts on “Perfectionism and Addiction: Two Sides of the Same Coin

  1. I don’t think there’s anything wrong in knowing when to step back, in knowing that perfection isn’t necessarily the goal of a good life Erin. Our society is caught up in this need to be better, to be the best, to live in ways that signal we have somehow mastered life and ourselves. I was trying- not very well- to speak to this concept in a comment on Wynne’s blog, or maybe it was on HoTM, the other day. I struggle a lot with these needs to be something more and why we are driven to continue searching and seeking. I often really have to ask myself- when will it be enough? When can we be accepted for who and what we are without another person or book or talk show or social media telling us that we haven’t achieved the standards of perfection that others deem acceptable. Clearly I am on a bit of a rant about this topic- sorry.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. No need to apologize, Deb. You’re absolutely right–perfectionism should not be the goal of life, and it’s unfortunate that some of us may be told or believe that to be true. The striving can be terribly detrimental, leading to anxiety, over-commitment, loss of sleep, and generally reduced quality of life. It really is important to step back and engage in that dialogue with ourselves–what am I seeking, and when will I be satisfied?–so as not to become completely overwhelmed.

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  2. Thanks for this, Erin. I agree about perfectionistic tendencies ‘cutting both ways’, the inherent dichotomy. The older I get, the more I realize ‘done’ can be very good…and I benefit when I shut my brain down to accept a task completed as more than it appears….and I remind myself that productivity often eclipses the need for perfection. Especially when I need to negotiate with myself about energy management…trying to avoid endless, self-imposed nonsense akin to ‘whack a mole’. 😉💓😉

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    1. I love the analogy to ‘whack a mole’, Vicki! You’ve hit the nail on the head, or perhaps the mole? 😉 I’ve also discovered that “done” is usually good enough. A decade ago, I would proofread something a dozen times; today, once is enough and if there’s an error or two, I’ll fix it if I find it. Time and energy is limited, and no longer wish to spend them on worry, anxiety, or perfectionism. 😊

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      1. LOL! “Nail on the head…whack a mole”…you’re funny! And oh gosh, yes. I can make myself looney as I chase typos…I’m with you…fix what we can and move on. There are bigger tasks to tackle…or NOT, right?! Hugs to you! 🥰


  3. Thank you for a thought provoking post, Erin. I never thought about the correlation between perfectionism and addiction before – but it does make sense now that you’ve outlined it so clearly. It’s sad to think about how people, sometimes the high achieving ones, often choose pain as a way to respond to failure rather than compassion.

    I like that you have meaningful metrics for success in life and I think that’s the key to help ground ourselves and shelter ourselves from perfectionism and addiction.

    As the parent of a child born addicted to meth and prenatally exposed to alcohol, I worry about how he’s so vulnerable to these issues when he grows up. All we can do is take things a day at a time!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for you thoughtful comment, Ab. I also hadn’t noted the connection before, so it was interested to explore a bit. You’re absolutely right about just taking things one day at a time. It sounds like your family is filled with love, patience, understanding, examples of positive behavior, and the appropriate level of discipline, and I suspect continuing to provide that support day-by-day will make a difference. 💕

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  4. Lately I’ve been talking about perfectionism just about everywhere I go. I know that when a topic shows up in my life over and over again, I’m meant to pay attention. As a recovering perfectionist I still find it difficult to not correct everything and to live with flaws. Yet I get what you’re saying, doing things perfectly is addictive.

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    1. I, too, and a recovering perfectionist, so I understand the challenge of living with flaws. I think simply being aware of the tendency, and then willing to talk about it, is a step in the right direction.

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  5. Interesting thoughts! I have seen that as I developed more self-worth my tendencies to try to be a perfectionist diminished. Perfectionism and addiction are tied to feelings of self-worth, or the lack of them. As we work on developing those areas, the need to numb out or to over-achieve lessens.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You make a great point, Tamara! You’re absolutely right! I used to be a perfectionist, and I think it had to do with gaining approval from external entities. Once self-worth has been developing, the opinions of others matter far less and it’s much easier to let of of the need for external approval or praise.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yay, I love this! Yes, that’s what I found for myself too! I’m constantly being amazed how my perception of myself changes so much in my life. I would never have thought it possible before. It seemed like a pipe dream for me!

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