Addiction and Emotions: Perfectionism

impossibleTo live as an addict is to live in a world of extremes. Addiction is, after all, a pursuit and experience of pleasure that is extreme. This way of living begins to infect expectations and discernment (or exacerbate what was already present). The addict can no longer see things as a progression, a development, but sees only the extremes. An all-or-nothing attitude will keep an addict stuck in a cycle of substance abuse.

We don’t generally think to associate perfectionism with addiction. After all, the addict has often let so many parts of their life go unfinished, fall apart, or die that perfectionism seems the complete opposite of their behavior. In reality, however, neglect and perfectionism are not complete opposites. Neglect can often be a result of a perfectionist bent. Someone who that all-or-nothing attitude may abandon projects or never start them precisely because they are convinced it can’t be done perfectly. “If I can’t do it right then I am not going to even try.” It’s a self-protective measure to keep at bay the realization of failure, something the perfectionist cannot handle.

In some ways, a perfectionist bent makes failure inevitable. The impossibly high standards that a perfectionist holds themselves to guarantees that they will not be able to achieve their goals. They are bound to “fail,” at least by their standards. The reality is that we are imperfect people, flawed, incomplete, and lacking. Nothing we do will be 100% perfect, nothing we strive to accomplish will be without flaw or degree of imperfection. To think otherwise is to make “failure” inevitable.

This type of thinking can make someone vulnerable to addictions. Perfectionists can tend towards two extremes, often vacillating between them: First, they can tend towards extremes in work. If they are not meeting their goals then they will work harder. Strive more, work longer hours, beat themselves up more, and refuse to quit. Secondly, they can simply give up. Quit before failure is obvious and surrender to despair. For those who give into the second impulse addiction becomes a way to suppress the realization of failure or imperfection. It becomes a means to quiet those voices of personal doubt and insecurity that plague them. It is not, of course this way for every perfectionist. The need to be in control can prevent some from every giving into addictive habits, but for some it is potential reality.

This type of all-or-nothing attitude not only entices some towards substance abuse, but it will keep them stuck in it. Recovery is a process. It takes a long-time, slow plodding change, and persistence to see transformation. Ultimately it takes dependence upon the Spirit of God, surrender of yourself and your autonomy to Him. These are realities that the perfectionist cannot embrace. It’s the reason that counselor Brad Hambrick says “This may be the most destructive cognitive disruption that emerges (or becomes more pronounced) because of addiction.” He adds:

In this mode of thinking things are either great or awful, easy or impossible, perfect or ruined, etc… Because overcoming addiction (or doing anything else worthwhile) is a journey and requires a process, they are deemed impossible. (“Overcoming Addiction,” 24)

Addicts need particular help in learning to accept the reality of disappointment. Life is full of disappointment and if we can’t deal with that, handle stress, reorient, and adapt to changes in plans we will fail at life. The perfectionist does not believe in set-backs, reorientation, or adaptation. The perfectionist truly believes that they should be able to perfectly accomplish every goal they set for themselves. “I will never drink again,” becomes not just a statement, but a promise. When they relapse they believe the goal impossible and are prone to give up. Furthermore, the layers of problems that a lifestyle of addiction produces (financial, marital, employment, etc.) cannot easily be overcome. They require time, discipline, persistence, and assistance. As the stress of these problems does not dissipate with sobriety the temptation is to return to the addiction in order to suppress that sense of failure. The addict can’t allow themselves time to grow and mature, either they will get it right on the first try or it can’t be done. All-or-nothing thinking will always keep a person stuck because change is a process.

Perfectionism denies the gospel. It suggests that apart from Christ we are each competent. The gospel tells us that without Christ we are impotent. We will fail at life because life was meant to be lived in union and communion with Jesus. But with Christ we can do all things, not because of our own strength and ability, but because of “Him who strengthens” us (Phil. 4:13). In Christ we have been given access to “every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (Eph. 1:3); and with God “nothing is impossible” (Matt. 19:26).  But this happens over-time in the life of the believer.

The gospel truly does changes us, but the application of that change to our daily living is progressive in nature. We are transformed, Paul tells us, “from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3:18). Even Jesus, we are told, “grew in wisdom” (Luke 2:52). Jesus was perfect, complete, lacking in nothing in His Divine nature. But as a man He too would see the Spirit progressively working in Him to maturation. If this is true of the perfect Son of God how much more true is it of us. We must surrender to the reality that our growth takes time and requires patience, assistance, and persistence. But there is hope that we will all be changed. Paul spells it out for us when he says:

And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. (Phil. 1:6)

The slow, sometimes plodding, nature of change can be discouraging, but we have every confidence that we can change. We can change because ultimately Jesus is going to change us! We can change because Jesus does not have half-finished projects for eternity. The perfectionist struggling with an addiction needs to be directed away from themselves and their efforts to the work and promise of Jesus Christ. They must take confidence in Him as they work and strive. They must have faith in Him as they labor to fight sin and temptation. With man it is impossible, but with God all things are possible!

The all-or-nothing thinking, that extreme emotion of perfectionism, settles for a self-determination that makes failure inevitable. The addict who puts their hope in Christ will not strive less, but will not see every setback as complete failure. Rather they will recognize the progressive nature of change and look to the Spirit of God to keep them moving forward. It is possible to change, but only in Christ.

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