Ditch Perfection and Embrace Progress

Recovery is a process of change through which individuals improve their health and wellness, live a self-directed life, and strive to reach their full potential (SAMHSA). How do loved ones begin to recover from the devastation caused by the addiction of a loved one? How do we stop enabling, blaming, worrying, preaching, quarreling, coaxing, arguing, and threatening? First we need to learn as much as we can about the disease of addiction (SAMHSA). Then we need to accept that we can’t control a substance abuser. Instead we need to focus on the process of change that we can control. We can shift our perspective from perfectionism to progress. We can strive to discipline our minds to stay present. Definitely a challenge because we spend a lot time waiting for the next shoe to bang on the floor.

My adult son has been in and out of recovery for many years. Although I’m grateful for those times when he’s healthy and productive, I still worry that he might relapse again. I rehearse future scenarios in my head or ruminate about the past. Often when he phones I found myself alert to his tone of voice or a shift in his mood. I ask too many intrusive questions, or I remind him do this and that. Did you make that dental appointment? Did you get the oil changed on your car? Did you attend an NA meeting this week? Although I strive to mind my own business, I don’t always follow through.

Relapse is part of addiction. Loved ones live with uncertainty. Uncertainty can lead to chronic stress. A recent study in Nature Communications found that having a 50 percent chance of receiving a painful electric shock was actually less stressful than having a 100 percent chance of receiving one. In other words, anticipating pain or anything bad that may or may not happen, no matter what you do, is stressful.

I recognize that I can’t control my son’s choices. So I set a goal to keep my spoon in my own bowl, to worry less, and take care of myself more. When I slip, I feel like a major screw up. Totally blew it. I should know better by now. These self-defeating thoughts hijack my recovery.

Anyone who has tried and failed to lose weight or stick with a regular exercise routine recognizes that slips or set backs are common. Say your goal is to lose 30 pounds in six months. And after two months you’ve lost 6 pounds. You feel that you’re never going to achieve your goal. Instead of getting back up on the horse, you become discouraged and beat yourself up. Anne Lamotte writes that “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor.” That shrill voice shouts: “You’re fat.” “You’re ugly.” “You have no self-discipline.” “You’re never going to lose that weight.”

The process of achieving any goal isn’t so much about the actual slip because nobody’s perfect. Rather it’s about how to deal with imperfection. Slips happen. Humans make mistakes. That’s life. Recovery for ourselves and our loved ones requires conscious patience and repetition. Getting from here to there need not be a struggle. Often it takes a long time for the disease of addiction to affect everyone and it may take a long time to recover. Don’t demand too much of yourself and your loved one. Abandon perfectionism. Cultivate compassion. When you fall short, climb back up on that horse. Celebrate forward motion, no matter how small.


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