Perfectionism and Substance Abuse: Exploring the Hidden Connection

It is hardly controversial to suggest that there are buried conflicts and past traumas that play a role in the onset and the continuation of drug and alcohol abuse. But some of the hidden reasons that underlie addiction often escape detection because no one is actually looking for them, usually because the connection is unsuspected. Perfectionism is not necessarily a tendency that we would expect to find lurking in the background of an addict’s life, but in fact this personality characteristic is quite common among drug and alcohol abusers. Despite the fact that perfectionists hold themselves to impossibly high standards-or perhaps because of it-they often end up enmeshed in the seemingly inescapable web spun by addiction, and the same perfectionism that helped lead them into the trap set by a most implacable foe in the first place seriously complicates their frantic attempts to free themselves from the willowy snare that has entrapped their bodies, minds, and spirits.

Unraveling the Dynamics of a Dysfunctional Relationship

The great irony of perfectionism is that it makes failure all but inevitable. Because perfectionists insist on a level of performance that is impossible to achieve in the vast majority of instances, they must constantly cope with feelings of frustration, disappointment, guilt, shame, and personal inadequacy. Perfectionists live in a state of constant psychological tension, which leaves them vulnerable to the soothing and sedating touch of alcohol; and when feelings of failure send them spiraling into depression, they can be strongly tempted to turn to stimulants like cocaine and methamphetamine to help them overcome their inner sense of ennui. Because of their need to always be in control, many perfectionists avoid intoxicants altogether, so it is not as if perfectionism is a risk factor for addiction in every instance. But when those who possess this trait are introduced to drugs and alcohol, their chances of eventually falling into dependency are undoubtedly greater than they are for those who lack this particular trait. To some extent, the perfectionism-addiction connection is based on the need to still the inner voices of doubt and existential dissatisfaction that plague perfectionists. But is it also important to note that perfectionism is a type of obsessive-compulsive behavior, and as such it shares common characteristics with addiction that at least hint at some sort of deeper mutually reinforcing relationship. The dialectical interplay between perfectionism and addiction likely strengthens the hold of each, making recovery from substance abuse all that more daunting for those who must overcome a way of reacting to adversity and difficult circumstances that makes things worse instead of better.

The Addiction-Perfectionism Complex and its Impact on Recovery

Recovery from substance abuse presents a long-term challenge that will test the resources of even the most resilient human being. Unfortunately, perfectionists generally lack resiliency. Because they hold themselves to such high standards in every aspect of their lives, they do not usually react well to setbacks, which can leave them unprepared to handle the occasional relapses that most recovering addicts and alcoholics experience at various points. Furthermore, because perfectionists are so used to personal disappointment and disillusionment they frequently possess a pessimistic outlook on life, and because they are generally firm believers in Murphy’s Law (if anything can go wrong it will), self-sabotage represents a constant threat to their attempt to heal. Successful recovery from substance abuse is only possible if the addict is prepared to handle the twists, turns, and detours that define the path to sobriety, and perfectionists are seldom well-prepared to deal with the ambiguities and uncertainties that mark the daily existence of the recovering addict. Making matters worse is that perfectionists often have a hard time admitting when they need help, and those struggling to overcome addiction may hold back important information from their therapists, skip support group meetings, or refuse to let their friends and family members provide crucially-needed moral support when times get tough. Addicts going through recovery must be willing to show humility and accept the insight and assistance of others, but this can be a problem for the excessively proud perfectionist. All of this may make it seem as if the plight of the addicted perfectionist is hopeless. Fortunately, however, this impression is far from accurate.

Perfectionism and the Art of Intentional Living

The antidote for perfectionism is best taken in small doses. Perfectionists must practice letting go, forgiving themselves, accepting mistakes, and carrying themselves lightly as they make their way through the world, and each little successful effort to do so will function as a building block in the construction of a grand palace of achievement. On a day-to-day basis, it is possible for perfectionists to slowly but surely change their inner dialogue into something positive and uplifting. But like the addiction recovery process, defeating the perfectionist tendency requires deliberate, consistent, and determined effort, and a view of the world that recognizes good things are only possible if we are patient enough to keep our intentions clearly in sight in each moment as we follow things through to the end. No one should try to conquer perfectionism all on his own, however. Addicts and alcoholics who recognize perfectionism in themselves need to talk about what they are thinking and feeling in their therapy sessions and in support group meetings. Addiction counselors certainly understand the tendency and will have recommendations on how to move beyond it, and peers will have experienced the internal turmoil and feelings of discouragement associated with perfectionism on numerous occasions, and will no doubt have some sage advice on how to resist its subtle self-predations.

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