"This is all a giant procrastination and you must deal with it. You must."
- Words spoken to author and then-active alcoholic Caroline Knapp by her dying father, also an alcoholic (from Knapp's book, Drinking: a Love Story)
The link between perfectionism and addiction has been well documented, but I've come to believe that perfectionism plays a bigger and more central role in many addictions than is generally thought - and that perfectionism itself can be addictive. Let me offer some examples of how perfectionism is handled in addiction literature, and then an idea of how I think it should be handled:
In Holy Hunger, her memoir of food addiction and healing, Margaret Bullitt-Jonas describes how she, "was a perfectionist bent on getting every detail 'right,' ready to pounce with condemnation on anyone - myself included - who got it 'wrong.'"
In her alcoholism and recovery memoir Drinking: A Love Story, the late Caroline Knapp writes,
An outsider walking past my cubicle that morning would have seen a petite woman of thirty-four with long, light brown hair pulled back in a barrette, neat and orderly-looking. Closer inspection would have suggested a perfectionistic, polished exterior, a careful attention to detail: a young woman with well-manicured nails and black leggings and Italian shoes; a daily list of things to do sitting on the desk, written in perfect print, several items already neatly ticked off; a workspace so compulsively tidy that one of my staff writers used to say you could fly a plane over my desk and it would look like a map of the Midwest, everything at perfect right angles. Colleagues saw me as smart and introspective...a paragon of efficiency at work: organized, professional, productive.
In another book, she writes, "I am a person who loathes imperfection."
In The Heart of Addiction, Lance Dodes, M.D., includes a chapter "Addictive Behavior as a Rebellion Against a Punitive Conscience," and writes, "Severe, unrealistic self-criticism is a very common precipitant of addictive behavior." Of one of his patients, he writes, "His use of a drug to deal with the self-condemnation of such a punitive conscience has been described as a way to create an identity free of the 'tyranny' of this eternal hanging judge."
And in Alan Berger's 12 Stupid Things That Mess Up Recovery , "Stupid Thing 7" is "using the program [Alcoholics Anonymous] to try to become Perfect." That chapter begins, "Believe it or not, perfectionism underlies most of our problems."
The interesting thing about the above examples is that they all somewhat miss the mark. Bullitt-Jonas mentions perfectionism almost in passing, even though it was a major part of her psyche and almost certainly a major cause of her long-stalled graduate thesis, among other problems. Knapp, ordinarily the most precise of observers and self-analysts, seems uncharacteristically muddled when she juxtaposes her perfectionism - and, later, compulsiveness - with beneficent qualities such as polish and efficiency in arguably self-congratulatory ways.
Although Dodes describes perfectionism brilliantly - I'm so jealous of his phrases "punitive conscience" and "eternal hanging judge!" - he doesn't actually name it, or devote much space to it. And I wonder why Berger, who believes perfectionism underlies most of our problems, relegates it to #7 of a list of 12. Why not a whole book on perfectionism, or at least a #1 or #2 ranking?
Early in his classic book Addictive Thinking, Abraham J. Twerski, M.D., provides an example of an addictive-type "distortion of thinking" he claims is not addictive:
"One young woman was procrastinating turning in her term paper for a class.
"Why don't you finish it?" I asked.
"It's finished already," she said.
"Then why haven't you submitted it" I asked.
Because I need to do some more work on it," she said.
"But I thought you said it's finished," I remarked.
"It is," she said.
Why does he consider her behavior not addictive? Sure, she's not using alcohol or drugs, but she's engaging in a self-destructive coping habit that is self-reinforcing. ("Coping habit" because she's probably delaying out of fear and/or anxiety; "self-reinforcing" because the more she delays, the more fear she will probably feel around the project, and the greater her need will be to cope.)
Perfectionism's Stinkin' Thinkin'
Perfectionism supports addiction in at least two ways:
First, it causes persistent feelings of frustration, despair, shame and guilt that an addict might turn to alcohol or some other addictive substance or behavior to soothe.
Second, it distorts your view of reality in ways that promote addiction and interfere with recovery. Distorted perspective and thinking are fundamental to addiction, which is often referred to as a "disease of denial." (In A.A., they call the dysfunctional thinking "stinkin' thinkin'.") Let's see how perfectionism supports addiction by comparing a typical perfectionist scenario with a typical addictive one.
In the perfectionist scenario, a writer expects her first drafts to be polished and well organized - in other words, like other people's final drafts. When she fails at that unreasonable goal, she reacts with great harshness, calling herself a "loser" and other names. And then, losing confidence and perspective, she abandons her writing project.
In the addictive scenario, a compulsive eater expects to reduce her calorie intake to 800 a day and lose five pounds in a week. When she fails at those unreasonable goals, she reacts with great harshness, calling herself a "loser" and other names. And then, losing confidence and perspective, she abandons her weight-loss plan.
Both scenarios illustrate key aspects of perfectionism:
- Setting unreasonable goals, and then punishing yourself harshly for failing to meet them. Not only is this an inhumane trap, but it is a scenario designed (and I mean that literally) to increase your fear around the goal so that you stop trying to pursue it. The purpose of procrastination is to protect us from the failure, success, or change we are terrified of, and it fulfills that purpose when we lose all hope and stop trying.
- Seeing things in rigid absolutes, in this case as total success or total failure. Twerski says, "Addictive thinking is often also characterized by a rigidity of thought, what we may call 'the either/or rule.'"
The writer's draft might have had some good points to it; the dieter might have lost a pound or eaten less junk food than usual. Those partial accomplishments are not only worth acknowledging, but essential to acknowledge, since refusing to do so not only feeds despair, but makes the goal seem much harder to achieve than it actually is.
- A focus on product (the writing, the weight loss), not process. Even Flaubert, obsessed as he was with le mot juste said, "Success must be a consequence and never a goal." Succumbing to the temptation to focus on the result merely feeds your perfectionist inner critic and undermines you.
- Overidentifying with your projects, so that your self-esteem rides on their success. Note how the writer and dieter didn't conclude that their writing and dieting were, in this instance, subpar, but that they themselves were losers.
Overidentifying with one's work is dangerous because most projects succeed or fail at least partly due to circumstances beyond your control - and to make your self-esteem so heavily dependent on things you can't control is a huge risk. The fact that your goals were probably unreasonable to start with only intensifies that risk.
Also, the "emotional roller coaster" of extreme highs and lows is, in itself, addictive. Sobriety often feels weird and boring in comparison, at least initially; and if you're hooked on the highs, that alone could lead you back to the addictive behavior.
- Mistrust of success when it happens. If a perfectionist happens to actually achieve a goal, she doesn't think, "Oh, that's great!" She disparages the victory, concluding that she set the bar too low. Talk about a lose-lose scenario!
- Grandiosity. Although perfectionism and addiction are generally indicators of low self-esteem, they also often, paradoxically, involve a strong element of grandiosity. Perfectionists think they should be able to outperform the ordinary run of mortals. So, the writer believes she should be able to spin out polished drafts effortlessly, and the dieter believes she should be able to lose weight effortlessly. The reality is that both writing and weight loss are complex and challenging endeavors, and that most people who succeed at either typically work much harder than is generally recognized.
- Magical Thinking. The grandiosity is a species of magical thinking (letting your needs and desires dictate your perceptions and analyses).
Here are some others:
Thinking you can make huge life changes all at once - say, in a New Year's resolution - instead of via incremental progress.
Thinking you can chide and bully yourself into more productivity, or less eating, when you've tried that strategy for decades and it hasn't worked.
Thinking your perfectionism is a productive behavior - "I just like to set high standards, that's all." - when you have abundant evidence to the contrary.
Thinking you can achieve a complex or difficult goal all by yourself, when in reality you probably need to work with mentors and a robust supportive community.
Reason for Optimism
I've chosen to talk mainly about compulsive eating partly because it's an issue I struggle with personally, and partly because eating and writing are both essential activities with rich emotional contexts that can get "twisted" via addictive or perfectionist thinking. And neither eaters nor writers can go cold-turkey abstinent the way alcoholics or smokers can.
If perfectionism and addiction are so closely linked, it only makes sense that overcoming your perfectionism will aid your recovery from an addiction. (And that addiction books will aid you in your quest to overcome perfectionism, which is why I recommend you read all the books mentioned in this essay) The steps for overcoming perfectionism are outlined in my free downloadable ebook, The Little Guide to Overcoming Procrastination, Perfectionism and Blocks to Success): you can practice them yourself or with friends, but will probably make better progress if you work with me or another expert. If you're struggling with an addiction, then you definitely need professional help and should probably also join a Twelve Step group.
If you feel helpless or hopeless about your perfectionism or addiction, that's probably your inner perfectionist talking: your now-or-never, all-or-nothing, just-do-it, what-are-you-waiting-for, don't-bother-me-with-your-trivial-concerns perfectionist. She or he means well, but is rooted in fear and prey to magical thinking. Both perfectionism and addiction can be alleviated and so, instead of hopelessness, you should feel optimism.
When you start seriously working on your problem, your fearful inner perfectionist might fight back with lulling messages designed to promote ambivalence: "this isn't so bad," "I can live with this," and "you're not as bad off as [fill in the name of someone even more mired]," Don't believe them. As Caroline Knapp's father said, perfectionism and addiction are a "giant procrastination."
The future can be much happier than the past, and you probably have far more capacity for growth and change - even rapid growth and change - than you realize. At 51, I'm happier than I've ever been, and I didn't even get started on this work until I was 45. Whether you're 21, 31, 41, 61 or older, change is possible and you can be happier, too.
Best for the New Year,