Why Perfectionism is Killing Your Recovery (and What to Do Instead)

There’s that moment when you see an old friend from a distance, and everything in your peripherals melts away. The entire landscape before you transforms into a beautiful field bursting with flowers of every color. You lock eyes, smile widely, and start running at one another in slow motion as an emotional backtrack gracefully brushes the scene. Reunited, and it feels so gooooood!

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When I saw my friend Ashley at Warped Tour, that’s pretty much what happened. It was our third year hanging out together under the HeartSupport tent, and she was one of the first people I saw on my first day there this summer. We started our conversation with hugs and laughs and light chatter about how life had been for her the past year. But almost immediately, I could tell there was something going on under the surface, so I cut her off and dove right in.

“Ashley, something seems off—what’s wrong?”

She relayed painful and depressing relationships and tragedies blowing up like bombshells all around her. The stress and anxiety was overwhelming, and it all resulted in her eventual relapse after making it almost a full year without self-harm. I could practically see the weight perching on her shoulders as she slumped over on the stool while we talked.

“The worst part is that I feel like I almost made it…it just feels like I’ve got to start all over again, and I just don’t know if I have it in me to do that…”

It felt like she plagiarized those words right from the script of my own recovery journey. I must have felt or said that exact statement a hundred times over. It’s like every brick you stacked one day at a time got bulldozed over, or the entire pyramid of cards crumbled as you stacked the last one, or the sand castle got washed away by a crashing wave as you were about to form the final tower…to watch every bit of hard work evaporate and every step you took against the rushing current reverse…it’s a crippling despair.

But after getting up and trying again for what felt like the thousandth time in my own journey, I finally realized something that changed my recovery and that I think will help change Ashley’s (and yours too):

Most people believe recovery is about perfection, but I now know that recovery is actually about progress.

[clickToTweet tweet=”Most people believe recovery’s about perfection, but now I know recovery’s actually about progress.” quote=”Most people believe recovery is about perfection, but now I know recovery is actually about progress.”]

And by embracing this perspective, progress will help you feel empowered, encourage you when you want to quit, and ultimately grow you to become the type of person that finds freedom in the end. The best way to explain it is by contrasting progress and perfection and hearing what each perspective sounds like:

  • Perfection is binary: you either succeeded or you failed.
  • Progress is cumulative: as you take steps forward over time, they add up to freedom.
  • Perfection tells you that you just wasted everything you worked for the past #___ days because of your failure today.
  • Progress tells you that you habituated yourself to a better path #___ days, and you will grow your way into freedom because each step builds strength.
  • Perfection tells you it’s not worth trying again because you won’t make it.
  • Progress tells you to keep going because you will.
  • Progress empowers you.
  • Perfection disheartens you.

Perfection shames you for your failure. It says, “You fucked up. You threw everything away, just like that. Welcome back to day one, square one.” It leaves you questioning if you have it in you to get back to where you were before you “failed”. Perfection says recovery is like rock climbing without a harness: if you slip, you fall all the way down. And shame on you for falling because you should have gotten it perfect.

Progress is more like a hike. It tells you that you should be proud of yourself for the distance you’ve traveled. Instead of believing that your recovery is about the number of consecutive days that you’ve perfectly avoided temptation, you celebrate the victories, the growth, the progress you make each day. You don’t believe that celebration is postponed for the summit at the top of perfect consecutive vertical maneuvers. You believe it’s available to you at each step of the journey, at each waypoint, at each reminder that once you were at the base of this mountain, and now you are here—however far you’ve traveled…you are no longer where you began, and you should be proud of the progress you’ve made so far.

Pride in progress is empowering. It says, “Because you’ve already come this far; you can make it all the way. You have what it takes. You can do this.” Shame in perfection is disheartening. It says, “You gave it all you had, and you still didn’t make it. You never will. You could try again, or you could just accept the inevitable and give in. Stop fighting your temptation and just let it overtake you.”

Perfection makes you believe that the only way to freedom is uni-directional: upwards. But progress more accurately describes the reality of recovery. No process of personal growth is a flat 90 degree angle from base to summit. You’re constantly changing angles, going up and down, changing paths, climbing at different speeds, overcoming different obstacles, solving different problems, learning, and ultimately growing through the times when the climb is the hardest. The perspective of progress embraces all aspects of the journey because it focuses on learning from whatever phase, obstacle, or hurdle you face.

You don’t have to “reclimb” from ground zero back to your personal high score of perfection. You are still exactly where you were before you relapsed. Progress is never lost; new obstacles are just found. You just bumped into a new challenge, and you need to embrace it, approach it, and conquer it to keep moving on your journey.

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If you went 17 days without self harming or looking at porn and then relapsed, choose to celebrate the dozens of times you chose an alternative path to your old habit. If you went a year without drinking and then busted out the bottle after a horrible week, remember all of the times you made healthier choices on all of the other bad weeks. Embrace your own progress, and then seek to understand why you chose to relapse, what feelings you experienced, what thoughts you entertained that led you to choose your old habits, and then learn from it. Envision yourself in a similar situation choosing a healthier alternative. And then when the time comes, make it happen! Your progress hasn’t been lost. You’ve just been given another opportunity to grow towards freedom.

The voice of perfection will discourage you whenever you fall short because it tells you that you’re undeserving of its glory. The voice of progress will always empower you because it recognizes how far you’ve come from where you started and how much closer you are to where you want to be. Both voices will pipe in, and you get to choose which you listen to. Embrace empowerment and ditch discouragement. Follow progress on your journey, and you’ll summit at freedom soon enough.

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