Perfectionism and Recovery (Terminally Unique, Pt. 11/21)

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“I do it every ten seconds,” writes Russell Brand in Recovery, “It could be a part in a film, a passing stranger or a can of Diet Coke—’If I get that, I’ll be alright,’ I think, not those words, it’s quicker and more insidious than words. It’s just a shift of attention and intention from the understanding that I am here to be useful to the idea that I am an objective-pursuing robot.” In the spring of 2013 I moved to Kansas City to help a friend open up a record store. Amid the tension and stress of managing professional responsibilities, compiled by conflicting personalities, it wasn’t long before there was a collapse—with both the work relationship and the friendship. I was still sober, though still only several months removed from my last drink, but I was also empty. I had no job, no car, no income, and no friends local to me in a strange city I’d just moved to. Recognizing where I was at with it all, a close friend threw me a life-preserver by inviting me to join her in New York, where she was also going through a rough patch, dealing with family matters. By the time I landed a strong depression had set in. This was only compounded by feelings of guilt relating to not being able to be present and supportive for her in ways I’d intended to be once I got there. Frustration, judgement, and shame took over, and speaking only to myself, I wrote, “I want what I have until the thrill of having won is over. The stuffed animal at the amusement park looks brilliant and seems worth every last penny of the fifty dollars you spent trying to win it. But once you have it, it’s just a toy. It’s not a great toy, and certainly not something you’d have wanted if it weren’t given to you as an option. It was there. You lusted after it. And now you’re ready to move on.” My entire life felt like a constant string of moments, pieced together around capturing a prize only to become complacent, before setting off again in search for something else which might provide a feeling of completeness.

At the time I had an awareness that a better life, a better self, or a better present moment was always elsewhere, and never quite within reach, but I had no idea what to do with that awareness. I continued in that journal entry, “Abandon toys? Women? Internet? Society? Then all I have is me, and my mind, which is a returning visitor that I already fear is visiting far too frequently, the way things presently stand. I just want to turn off the guilt of living.” Of all the times of my life I’ve forgotten, I’ve held on to the memory of those feelings experienced on that particular day; the frustration, the confusion, and certainly the anguish. This sort of suffering is explained in Refuge Recovery as, “the stress created by craving for more.” The book continues by adding that “Suffering is never having enough to feel satisfied. […] Suffering is the thought that I cannot be happy until I get… Suffering is the anguish and misery of being addicted.” While I hadn’t had a drink for the better part of a year by that point, I also hadn’t done anything to work on the issues surrounding my addiction, including this problem of an ever-shifting goal post emblazoned with the word “Satisfaction” on it in big bold letters. What was that? What is that? Simply put, it was and is perfectionism.

Sometimes I’m quick to grasp new concepts, while at others I am an incredibly slow learner. I first read Brené Brown’s book The Gifts of Imperfection in 2016 and her blunt assessment of perfectionism immediately resonated with me. “Perfectionism is not self-improvement,” she writes. “Perfectionism is, at its core, about trying to earn approval and acceptance. […] Healthy striving is self-focused—How can I improve? Perfectionism is other-focused—What will they think?” Elsewhere in the book she adds, “Where perfectionism exists, shame is always lurking. In fact, shame is the birthplace of perfectionism. […] Perfectionism actually increases the odds that we’ll experience these painful emotions and often leads to self-blame: It’s my fault. I’m feeling this way because ‘I’m not good enough.'” I recall breaking out my highlighter to draw attention to these passages for future reference when I first read them, and while I returned to them many times over, it wasn’t until several years later where I learned how I could actually apply that lesson to my life. (For reference, the resource I’m referring to is available in its entirety online from the Government of Western Australia’s Centre for Clinical Interventions. As a source, that might sound random and slightly bizarre, and it certainly is random but the resource itself is anything but bizarre. I highly suggest all of their freely available workbooks and can’t stress enough how helpful they’ve been to me, both professionally and personally speaking.)

A big step forward for me came in understanding that perfectionism isn’t simply trying my absolute best all times, or something along those lines. Perfectionism might begin with placing a great deal of importance on the pursuit and achievement of high personal standards, but it tends to shape-shift from there. As she writes in That Which You Are Seeking Is Causing You to Seek, Cheri Huber adds, “Being a perfectionist is not a problem—I want everything done as well as it can be done in this moment. The problem is that I’m really an imperfectionist. I’m not actually looking for that which is perfect, I’m seeking the imperfect. I will examine and change standards until the goal is impossible, then I will label that goal as ‘perfection.’ The next step is to beat myself for failing to meet my perfectionist ideals. But, in fact, I have met my ideal, my true goal. I believe myself to be imperfect and I have proven it.” The view of self through the lens of perfectionism only becomes more distorted as self-worth becomes aligned with the inability to meet those slippery expectations. Because I can never do enough, I am never enough.

Through gaining insight into my own unrelentingly high standards, I learned more about the ways in which I was engaging in perfectionistic behaviors and unhelpful thinking. First, perfectionists tend to evaluate our experiences in a skewed manner by paying extra close attention to mistakes or signs of failure. This is often referred to as confirmation bias, which is a “tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms or supports one’s prior beliefs or values.” For example, if I feel like I’m not enough, as time progresses I’m going to start scanning for ways that confirm that. Second, because the standards set are regularly unreasonable, perfectionists might procrastinate or give up altogether on thinking there’s a way to avoid failure. Why start when nothing but the best will do? And when that happens, perfectionists prove our inner critics correct, being unable to attain a standard which we deemed reasonable despite being anything but. Third, if and when perfectionists actually do achieve the standard, we might experience some short-term relief, but in the long run we’ll find a way to determine that the standard set wasn’t high enough and shift it such that it becomes once again out of reach. I’ve personally been doing this stuff regularly, and largely without realizing it, for as long as I can remember. And knowing what I know about others in recovery, I don’t believe I’m alone in this.

Many alcoholics I’ve met struggle to maintain a middle ground between an inflated sense of ego and a vacant sense of self-esteem. An applicable A.A.-ism for this is “an egomaniac with an inferiority complex.” I was in a meeting one day when a thought came to my mind which more closely aligned with how I look at myself. In the back of my head there’s a voice that tells me, “You’re the shit, you piece of shit.” That message is always lurking. A perfectionistic gremlin on my shoulder reinforces this voice by placing a premium on the standards I’ve set for myself, as though the overly high nature of the standard somehow signifies inherent personal merit. At the same time it’s also quick to remind me of a lengthy track-record where I’ve been unable to meet my personal expectations, leaving me to judge or shame myself over this twisted perception of failure. To speak of paradoxes in recovery, this is certainly one of them: an ever-present hum of simultaneously feeling both greater than and never enough.

Through my journaling which accompanied my own therapy focused on perfectionism, it was discouraging to realize that in many ways I hadn’t overcome my addiction, but that it had merely splintered off into other areas of my life. I’ve placed a significant level of pressure on myself to strive for an unrealistic ideal, which has taken form in such areas as those I’ve already mentioned, speaking to my eating habits and relationship with my body image, as well as those such as romantic relationships. The lot of it has created belief system filters around why and how I’m to be worthy of love, even self-love, dependent on warped criteria such as my waistline or whether I’m perceived as attractive enough by women. Now looking back on my journal entries early on in my sobriety, I find it alarming how misguided my viewpoint was surrounding these concepts, and how desperate I was for external acceptance, validation, and affirmation from women, as though anyone could have ever provided enough acceptance, validation, or affirmation to satisfy my internal void. Sharing these beliefs now is embarrassing, but I put them out there to hopefully paint a more clear picture of how warped some areas of life can become due in part to perfectionistic thinking. In notes I kept while working with the topic, I wrote of regrettably true beliefs I held about myself, including how “I judge my self-worth largely by how attractive I think women find me”; “If i’m not attractive, I’m not of value”; “I must be physically fit or I’m worthless”; and “I look at my body and only see faults.” I don’t have much to add there. Some of these are core beliefs I’ve been unable to shake since I was a child.

There’s a funny line from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which I think is relevant here, where one character tells another “I only know as much about myself as my mind can work out under its current conditions. And its current conditions are not good.” My mind was definitely not in a headspace ten years ago where the right conditions were in place to take on any sort of work such as these problems surrounding perfectionism, but it’s hard for me to believe that it took me five years after reading Brené Brown’s book before I was in a position to actually begin doing the work (though, I suppose, it’s still better late than never, right?!). This is work I’m still doing now, and if I were to guess what continues holding me back from leaving it behind me, and maybe what holds others back as well, I might throw out a few of the usual suspects such as a lack of humility, denial, or defensiveness. But to be honest, I think a big part of my continued struggles is related to wanting there to be more wrong with me than there actually is. This is something of a self-fulfilling recovery prophecy.

“You have to treat me special for me to feel average,” one of the elder statesmen of my men’s group would regularly say. “And if you treat me average, I feel rejected.” For the life of me, I can’t exactly place what this thing is except to bundle it in with the broader concept of “terminal uniqueness.” Is it a victim mentality? Is it a rigid ambivalence to change? Is it just wanting to be special? Being different by way of having an addiction disorder or a mental health issue seems like a rather creative way of carving out an internal sense of individuality, but what do you do when part of the Jenga tower of identity is made up of a fundamental belief that you are unlike anyone else, and that your problems are different, only to find out that countless others deal with them every single day? What happens when that identity becomes aligned with a disease, a malady, a disorder, something at least partially outside of individual control, no matter what, only to be confronted with information revealing that those once unmanageable issues, can be made more manageable with time and effort? Do you let go of the thing that has been holding you back? Do you even know how?

On top of the humility, denial, and defensiveness concepts, maybe there’s some rationalization, minimizing, and intellectualizing also contributing to what’s going on here. “When efforts to be thin fail,” writes Barry Schwartz in The Paradox of Choice, “people not only have to face the daily disappointment of looking in the mirror, they also must face the casual explanation that this failure to look perfect is their fault.” Maybe there’s a little bit of this stemming from living within our society’s particular brand of capitalism, where a sense of radical individualism is idealized alongside domestication and a confused cycle of learned-helplessness. Through such a lens as this, it would be a personal failing of Sisyphus that the boulder rolls back down the mountainside once he reaches its peak, and not a fundamental feature of the system he’s imprisoned by. I don’t know, nor do I think it really matters to figure out the “why” here. To stay aimed at a solution, perhaps what’s more important is to focus on what can be done in response to all this.

Part of what might influence actually getting out of this hole in the ground revolves around what psychologist Carol Dweck calls “self-theory,” focusing on whether an individual bears a “fixed” or “incremental” point of view relating to their abilities. This can be helpful when attempting to establish an understanding of someone’s implicit relationship with personal autonomy when facing problems in their life. For example, “incremental theory” people tend to believe that ability is developed over time, that failure is a sign they’re pushing the limits of their abilities, that through new opportunities those limits will continue to change, and that outcomes are less important than the process of learning that accompanies any given challenge. Those with a “fixed theory” perspective, however, tend to believe ability is innate, they tend to find failure to be a problematic sign of not measuring up, and they have a strong desire to prove themselves and to be viewed by others as competent. Which of these two sounds like a perfectionist? I say this can be helpful in getting out of the hole because much like A.A.’s first step helps bring about a sense of awareness of the problem at hand, learning to accept any pre-existing mental traps is necessary to learning to move beyond them. Acceptance brings about awareness which can begin the incremental process of moving from a fixed theory perspective to that of an incremental one. And without awareness, change is unlikely to occur.

The broader picture I’m aiming for goes back to the framing of recovery as being “an ongoing process of changing one’s attitudes, examining beliefs, defining goals, and reclaiming a positive sense of self.” Whether perfectionism is a problem for other alcoholics isn’t really up to me to decide, but out of realizing how much it has influenced negative cycles of addiction and problematic patterns of thinking in my own life, what’s developed within me is something of an existentialist approach to recovery. Yes, I believe recovery is reducing or eliminating use in support of finding and living a satisfying and meaningful life. Yes, recovery is an ongoing process of changing one’s attitudes, examining beliefs, defining goals, and reclaiming a positive sense of self. And yes, recovery is a restoration of health and not merely a reduction in harm. But recovery is also an acceptance of personal responsibility for nurturing a healthier relationship with oneself and the action of intentionally pursuing healing rather than merely rejecting the imperfections of established methodologies.

Within those like me is a tireless streak of defiance which at times appears to exist if only to stand in the way of benefiting the self. A.A.’s Bill Wilson called himself “an anarchist who revels in liberty” and in Recovery Russell Brand adds, “My dislike of authority and institutions was so entrenched that I would reject even loving guidance. When I embarked on this program I was entirely entombed in brittle wisdom of my own composition.” Whether we’re talking alcoholism or not, self-knowledge alone isn’t going to magically manifest a better life. And if all any of us needed was self-help, life would be nothing but rainbows and unicorns on a day to day basis. So what then?

“If you’re looking for self-help, why would you read a book written by somebody else? That’s not self-help, that’s help. There’s no such thing as self-help. If you did it yourself, you didn’t need help.” –George Carlin

I remember working with the last guy I sponsored in A.A.; I’ll call him “Jack.” Jack had been through treatment numerous times and could quote the Big Book ad nauseam, but he couldn’t stay sober. I was younger than him, and felt insecure about my income and career path when measuring mine against his, but he wanted to work with me so we went for it. I’ll admit that from the beginning it wasn’t really “sponsorship” much as it was two guys working together in the pursuit of mutual sobriety. (There was a lot of 12 Step thrown into the mix, and for any A.A. purists who might stumble across this at some point in time, it’s worth mentioning thatI did consult with my own sponsor throughout the entire relationship, to help ensure I wasn’t straying too far outside my lane.) One of the things we did rely on was what I mentioned in a previous chapter when referencing Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do; in this situation we called it Jack Kune Do.

The principle behind it was to not reject assistance, guidance, or support because of the faults we’re able to find with the source, but to investigate and experiment with how taking what’s useful and personally applicable from those sources can better our personal predicament. Standard A.A. questions came up like, “how is that serving you?” or “how is that making your life better?” when we discussed our persistent rejection of ideologies relating to recovery. But as we asked these questions together, when looking at our lives, we tended to find that rejecting entire concepts outright because we took fault with some of their finer points, or some of the people who delivered them, wasn’t serving us well at all. All that did was distance us from help and isolate us from others. At the time, I didn’t realize we were essentially partaking in an anti-perfectionism practice, but that’s what it was. And I’ll give A.A. credit for priming me for this work. Even now I recall little sayings that guys in my men’s group would use to explain the mindset behind those of our ilk, and how much they would resonate with me. “We’re gatherers of one,” one guy would say. “We can walk into a room of a hundred people, be warmly greeted by ninety-nine, but completely overlook them all because of that one person who ignored us.” This is exactly what Cheri Huber talks about when explaining the role perfectionism can play in one’s life. “I am a people-displeaser,” she writes. “No matter how many times I have pleased others, I won’t start counting until someone is not pleased. Then my response is, ‘See, I can never do it right.’ But I have. I am looking to displease someone and I’ve just done it. I’m right! That’s what I thought I’d do. I have been true to my real belief. There is the belief we believe and then there is what we really believe.” What Jack and I were doing was trying to re-program ourselves to live in the middle ground, when our operating systems would rather default to the extreme binary of all or nothing. To be real though, this isn’t something I’ve got figured out yet. It still creeps up on me and gets in the way of my life.

In my first draft of this chapter I concluded the writing in a way that doesn’t feel genuine now. It wasn’t authentic to where I’m at. It talked more about how my relationship with myself has changed because of the work I’ve done, which is true, but it doesn’t account for what’s happening right now or what I’m feeling and experiencing currently. Even as I was recording the chapter titled “What is Recovery?” I felt… “off.” The day after I published it, I recognized I was being overly critical of myself because I didn’t think it did well at fully depicting the nature of the opioid epidemic. It made me think of all the ways that I could have done things better, but hadn’t, with the rest of this project; all the ways that I was being selectively authentic. This chapter feels rough because it unveils a ghost that still haunts. And as I revisit it now, my reaction is mixed because I realize that most of it is still aimed at an audience of one: Me.

This entire writing and recording practice feels akin to hosting a public viewing of an elective self-surgery. In one of his many books, I recall Richard Rohr commenting on a tendency to get this sort of thing twisted. To paraphrase the thought, he attributed it to exposing ugliness as a means of trying to make oneself look good. It’s sort of like, “Look at the worst of me (or at least the worst of me I’m willing to expose), and saying ‘isn’t my vulnerability attractive?'”

I have a slew of self-critical thoughts about this project, but maybe they’re relevant here. When I went to rehab, for example, the state of Minnesota stepped in with emergency social services which covered my mortgage while I was institutionalized. And while I declined to return to my job, the company I worked for was great, and they welcomed me back after my temporary leave, despite my having been an utterly terrible employee to that point. These are the kind of things that have been left out of my writing along the way. I’ve been incredibly privileged—and downright lucky, actually—and in recalling all of this I also fear that it overlooks the harm I’ve caused to others; one person’s life lessons are another person’s trauma. Whatever I share here will still paint an incomplete picture of my own life, though, let alone portray a completist view of the “recovery scene,” or what treatment looks like, or what my true feelings even are. It felt important to call this out because of the trap of consciously (or subconsciously) trying to come across as some kind of expert in this space, when in reality I’ve been struggling with some of these concepts now more than I have been in years. To act as if I am fully confident in what I’m doing here is to play a role I’m not comfortable with. Instead, it feels better to draw my attention to the normalcy of making mistakes, and the normalcy of dealing with issues surrounding perfectionism. No one has it fully figured out. And that includes me.

One of the ideas at the beginning of this project was a belief that its value would be found in a direction that had yet to unveil itself. And in re-reading this chapter to myself, the concept of desiring to earn approval is one that feels remarkably current. The idea of leveling up via some external source to find lasting internal contentment is a doozy, and attempting to take on this sort of work by myself is a fool’s errand. Not just that, but it goes against my own best judgement, and certainly the advice I’d give someone else. I don’t think it started with this project, but since publishing the last chapter I’ve become hyper-focused on myself, and recognize that I’m increasingly susceptible to unconsciously scanning for things that come up to confirm my belief that I’m not enough. Whether you call it “recovery” or just “well-being,” that is a huge red flag. A few days ago I came to a dead end with it and agreed with myself that I need help again. As the saying goes: Try to stay out of your head, but if you have to go into your own mind, don’t go alone. There’s no clean or wildly fulfilling way to end this other than to say that it’s led me to realizing that I need to seek help, myself, to course correct. And as for this chapter? “Done” seems to be a far better option than “done perfectly.”

Terminally Unique - Alcoholism - AA - Addiction

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