The Addict In Us: Perfectionism

Theres-An-Addict-In-All-Of-Us-2We are all more like the addict than we realize. You may not be presently abusing alcohol or shooting heroin, but many of the characteristics that drive people towards addiction are common to us all. Last week we explored our common tendency towards impulsivity. Likewise, perfectionism can be a common characteristic that drives us towards addictions of various kinds. The insistence on perfection sets us all up for failure.

Nobody likes failure. Admitting our inadequacies, shortcomings, sins, and weaknesses is not easy or comfortable. Yet failure is part of our human experience. Our limitations, imperfections, and finitude mean that we will surely experience failure. To the degree that we accept this we can grow through our painful experiences of failure, but if we refuse to accept failure we will find that we set ourselves up for more and more difficulty. In the immediate moment a refusal to accept failure can feel like a motivating tool to keep us striving for “better.” The problem for the perfectionist, however, is that the “best” never really arrives. Because we are not perfect, and we do not live in a perfect world, we can never truly attain perfection. Repeated failure, for the perfectionist, will inevitably mount up to despair. That despair becomes, then, a major point of temptation in our lives.

A perfectionist tends to operate under the assumption of false-extremes. Perfectionists adopt an “all-or-nothing” mentality that refuses to accept anything but the ambiguous “best”. Eventually, however, as failure after failure mounts we are forced to deal with the weight of self-condemnation that we have been attempting to suppress. This leads to overwhelming feelings of despair. Brad Hambrick notes the relationship between perfectionism and cycles of depression/anxiety. He writes:

Perfectionism may be the best recipe for getting stuck in a perpetual cycle of depression-anxiety. Pressure to be perfect stirs anxiety. Looming, inevitable failure saps all hope and leads to depression. Unless you give up and settle for being “average” then the only option is to get up and repeat the cycle again. (Depression-Anxiety: Allowing the Gospel to Speak to Our Emotional Responsibilities, 48).

As cycles of depression increase the desire to simply “give-up” increases, and drugs become a potential escape.

Though it seems paradoxical, the truth is that often addicts are perfectionists who have given up. Their all-or-nothing, black-and-white mentality has forced them to a place of complete abdication. Because they cannot be perfect they refuse to try, and in order to suppress their feelings of failure they turn to drugs. Lance Dodes, has written extensively on the idea that substance abuse is “rebellion against a punitive conscience” (see The Heart of Addiction). This characteristic is also one reason many do not complete rehab. The false extremes they live by do not leave room for growth, development, or relapse, and so since recovery is hard they often give up before they get started. David Sack has observed:

The perfectionist misinterprets the message of abstinence. Indeed, abstinence is a black-or-white concept – addicts are expected to refrain from the use of all mood-altering substances. What the perfectionist doesn’t realize is that abstinence is the long-term goal, and that slip-ups are learning opportunities, not failures. When they expect perfection right from the start, the addict has a difficult time bouncing back from a relapse.

Perfectionism destroys the addict’s confidence and motivation to heal. Instead, they conclude, “Recovery is too hard. If I can’t do it perfectly, I’d better not even try.” This fear of not being good enough deters some from getting help at all. (“The Dance of Perfectionism and Addiction”)

A temptation towards perfectionism can lead to addiction, and keep a person stuck in addiction. This same characteristic can lie in all our hearts.

Perfectionism sets unrealistic goals and refuses to acknowledge the truth about ourselves. The Bible tells us flatly that we have “all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). We are imperfect, flawed, weak, and broken. The perfectionist often ascents to these truths, acknowledging that they cannot be perfect, but in practice they actually refuse to accept it. They believe they should be able to do more, accomplish more, and succeed where others may fail. The manifestations of this characteristic, however, come in many forms and for some it manifests as surrender. Some will simply refuse to try anything in order to keep themselves from failure. Others will give up quickly in order to avoid a bigger failure latter on. In all cases, however, the haunting truth about who we really are, the truths about our own inadequacies, can become overwhelming. When we are overwhelmed enough we seek escape, and addictions of various kinds become a viable means.

Stereotypes and myths about addicts paint them as simply morally weak people. They just don’t have the willpower or moral fortitude to say no to drugs. The truth however is very different. Often they have very high moral expectations. Kent Dunnington actually argues that addicts are driven by the pursuit of moral goods (see Addiction and Virtue). In truth they are just like all the rest of us, seeking to attain a level of perfection that satisfies us, but seeking it apart from God. Drugs can become both a means of seeking it (per Dunington), or an escape from the realizations of failure. Many of us have these sorts of responses too. We turn to food, video games, generalized self-pity to assuage our punitive conscience. We seek some respite from our failures, whether we are doing so in a bottle or a television program. The Scriptures, of course, tell us that we can find rescue from a guilty conscience in Christ (Heb. 9:14), in whom there is no condemnation (Rom. 8:1).

We are all alike. Our problems often run a spectrum, but they start with very similar characteristics. Recovery Culture Churches, which I am increasingly excited to see develop, know this and strive to create solidarity among all sinners. Perfectionism can be found in the super-mom, in the straight A student, in the obedient son, in the workaholic, and the alcoholic. We are all the same. There is an addict in all of us, and our common temptation towards perfectionism evidences it.

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