I am a perfectionist.
There was a time when I believed this personality trait to be a virtue.
At job interviews, when asked to disclose a shortcoming, I’d cop to my perfectionism. I convinced myself that being a perfectionist would put me ahead of other applicants. Who wouldn’t want an employee who expects herself to be flawless in everything she does?
My inner task-master looks a lot like my grade one teacher. She’d stroll between our desks, her spine ramrod straight, her attention intent on our perfect execution of her instructions.
It’s no surprise that I subconsciously embraced perfectionism as a character trait integral to my safety, rather than a character defect that has the power to sucker punch me and run off with my self-esteem tucked under its arm. I used perfectionism to prevent myself from feeling the pain of failure, or accepting the responsibility that comes with success.
Lance Dodes, an American psychiatrist, describes perfectionism as a “Punitive Conscience” and the “Hanging Judge.” What could be truer? I made it impossible for myself to measure up to myself.
Eight months ago, when I excitedly opened the Workbook of Co-Dependents Anonymous and carefully wrote out my answers to the questions of Step One, I was bathing in the pink cloud of recovery. This is it! I thought. This is the answer! If I just work the program of recovery perfectly, I will be free from all the codependent behaviors that have made my life a living hell and my relationships a perpetual circus with me as the ring master.
Meanwhile, in the shadows of my subconscious, the perfectionist sat on her stool slapping her pointer stick into the palm of her open hand, waiting for me to screw up.
I smile with compassion at the beautiful innocence of myself as the newcomer. It was the hope in me, the smarting and freshly scraped knees of having just stood up from the sh*tty rock bottom, that gave me the courage to keep turning the pages and moving up the steps. Looking back, I can see I had perched the recovery bar impossibly high in hopes of pleasing my inner perfectionist.
I had a good float inside the pink cloud. I used hypervigilance on myself. I memorized the codependent patterns of behavior in order to call myself out at the first opportunity I caught myself acting out of them. I used the Lao Tzu quote, “Do you have the patience to wait till your mud settles and the water is clear? Can you remain unmoving till the right action arises by itself?” to pump the breaks on impulsive decision-making.
I called my sponsor in the midst of triggers and practiced self-regulating my emotions. I attended 12-step meetings and read voraciously all the recovery literature I could get my hands on. I created an Instagram account documenting my recovery progress, hoping to be of help to others. I thought I had it all figured out. And while I was patting myself on the back for my perfect recovery work, my inner perfectionist was executing a covert operation for a relapse.
When it happened, it was epic. Cortisol flooded my body. The lizard brain at the back of my skull highjacked rational thought. My triggered 13-year-old was doing her best to resolve the problem of a 54-year-old woman and I felt like a passenger staring out the window of a run-away train. The only thing I could do was take cover and hope that I and my loved ones would walk away from the carnage intact.
The hangover after a codependent relapse feels like drowning in a vat of boiling negativity and self-hate. I lose sense of where I end and others begin. I shame and blame myself and project shame and blame onto others. My sofa becomes the only safe space in my apartment. The episodes of a Netflix series unspool one after another and I don’t care. I am back to self-loathing and catastrophizing. The perfectionist snuggles in. “You have always been a quitter,” she whispers. “What made you think this would be any different?”
In the past, these episodes would flatten me. I would be crushed under the weight of my inability to maintain perfection. I’d disassociate and feel as if I was floating around, ungrounded. The anxiety would make it impossible to communicate with my inner guide. I’d search out comfort from the same people whose behavior caused me pain. It would take weeks, sometimes months, to right myself. Rarely would I show this side of myself to others. I’d isolate and when I had to go out, I’d use the last dregs of energy to pretend I was just fine. “Nothing to see here.”
But this time, instead of wallowing in self-pity and declaring my recovery (and by association, myself) a failure, I had the wherewithal to hear my inner guide who asked me to get off the sofa and reflect on the impact perfectionism has on addiction.
This is what I found out:
Perfectionism fuels stinkin’ thinkin’. When I experience codependent slips in my day-to-day relationships, it’s easy to let myself fall into frustration, guilt, shame, and despair—thoughts that further threaten my recovery. To combat the stinkin’ thinkin’, I do my best to closely observe my internal monologue.
When I sniff the first notes of negativity, self-blame, or judgment, if I catch myself using the word stupid, dumb, or idiot in reference to myself, I imagine a stop sign. When possible, I say “Stop” out loud to the thoughts.
I then paint over the negative thoughts with an imaginary paintbrush and see myself writing loving affirmations such as:
I love myself exactly as I am.
I accept all parts of myself.
I am worthy.
Other people’s problems are theirs to solve.
Only I know how to best take care of my needs.
Procrastination is simply perfectionism protecting me from experiencing life fully. When I stop myself from beginning new projects or completing projects that I feel I don’t have the skills to finish, when I delay or avoid difficult conversations, I am setting myself up for a relapse. Procrastination protects me from failure, but also success, or any change that has the power to transform my life for good. When I utilize procrastination, I lose hope and stop trying, which endangers my recovery.
To overcome procrastination, I set myself up for success. Instead of all-or-nothing thinking, I tell myself that I will try a new technique for a limited time and then reevaluate whether it works for me or not. It becomes less about success or failure, and more about gathering data about what works or doesn’t work for me. This allows me to view my projects objectively. I take the perfectionistic magnifying glass off myself, which safeguards my recovery.
Gustave Flaubert has a great quote: “Success must be a consequence, not a goal.”
When I focus strictly on the result, when I succumb to the belief that only I hold the power to make something succeed, I place my self-esteem, hence my recovery, in grave danger. I remind myself that there are many factors outside my control that can make or break my goals. I focus on the process, small tangible steps that are in themselves a daily success.
When I bully myself into working harder, pushing through, and demanding perfection, I am setting myself up for a relapse. To disengage my inner bully, I practice saying, “This is good enough,” and take a break from a project, or the argument with my partner that has reached a stalemate.
This includes walking away from my desk, or telling my partner I need time to practice self-care. I do something totally unrelated. I go out for a walk, cook a healthy meal, or read a light novel. I return to my project or my partner in a few hours more relaxed and forgiving.
Thinking that I can achieve a complex and long-term goal all by my lonesome is living in denial of reality. I’ve recently started working with a productivity coach. He is teaching me that community is necessary and that leaning on others for help is not a sign of weakness, but rather wisdom and humility. This line of thinking is healthy for my recovery.
I am beginning to understand that recovery needs imperfection in order to progress. I must let go of the belief that I will never slip, never screw up, and never behave in codependent ways, because it’s the slips, screwups, and codependent messes that hone my awareness of my shortcomings.
Chiara Santomiero writes, “Naming something, or knowing its name, means having power over that thing.” It is the reason why I openly admit to being a codependent in meetings. This also applies to naming my shortcomings. When I admit to being a perfectionist, I loosen its power over me. (I’m still working on that one.)
It’s taken me several drafts to arrive at this point of my article. Why? I wanted it to be perfect.
I sit back with a knowing smile on my face. It is likely that my inner perfectionist will always be there, like the codependent part of me will always be there.
Instead of flogging myself for screwing up, for acting out of codependency, and perhaps causing harm to myself and others, I can celebrate that it only took three days to forgive myself and arrive back at my desk to do what brings me joy.
I look over my shoulder at the grey zone that is my life and make space for future mistakes that are, after all, the beautiful, stinky fertilizer of future successes.