Giving Yourself Permission to Be Imperfect
Many cases of substance addiction are rooted in perfectionism: unhealthy stress thrives on feelings that you’re never good enough, that everyone is judging you, that life owes you cooperation in return for your efforts. Eventually, bitterness takes over, and “I deserve something for my trouble and no one else cares anyway” becomes the rationalization for drug abuse.
Perfectionistic overachievers have a distorted sense of self: they treat themselves as exceptions to the rule that no one can get everything right every time or solve every problem singlehandedly. Desperate to appease fears of coming up short, they do everything in their power to plan every detail and head off every mistake—and when glitches and interruptions show up nonetheless, they become irrationally angry. Often, they half believe they were created to give the rest of the world someone to pick on.
Ironically, many perfectionists are highly successful and accomplished—and envied by their peers—yet they feel like failures. They aimed at “all or nothing,” didn’t quite hit “all,” and concluded they were worth nothing.
If you recognize yourself in that description—and perhaps are thinking, “I know better, but I still feel I ‘have’ to get everything right”—read on.
STEP OUTSIDE YOURSELF FOR A BIT
Consider: if your mother or close friend made the same mistake you’ve just made, would you talk to her with the same words you want to say to yourself? If not, what would you say instead? Or, if your best friend saw you make that mistake, what would she say to you? Say those words to yourself.
The same principle applies to worries about having made a fool of yourself in public: would you remember fifteen minutes later that someone else mispronounced a word or spilled some coffee? They aren’t going to remember what you did, either.
And if your neighbors don’t seem to notice you one morning—maybe they really didn’t notice you. If your boss is grouchy, there are a hundred things besides “something you’ve done” that could have triggered it. Unless they snub or snap at you consistently for several days—in which case it’s time to be brave and ask what the problem is—assume the cause lies elsewhere instead of trying to analyze everything you might possibly have done wrong for the last two months.
LOOK ON THE BRIGHT SIDE
Sure, it’s a cliché, but still a worthwhile principle. Set a goal that for every time you catch yourself complaining about yourself, you will stop and name five things you’re grateful for. Example:
Complaint: I always wind up in a last-minute rush.
- I’m thankful to be naturally conscientious.
- I’m thankful to be smart and energetic.
- I’m thankful I have a good job and haven’t been late once.
- I’m thankful I can take the bus to work, and have time to read instead of watching the traffic.
- I’m thankful that I see my favorite coworkers every day.
Even better, don’t wait until you’re tempted to grumble: carry a notebook and keep a running list of things others compliment you for, good things that happen, small beauties you come across, all the everyday blessings of health and provision we take for granted. Reread past entries regularly to fortify your mind against the voice of annoyance.
RETHINK THE WHOLE IDEA OF “EARNING” ANYTHING
Truthfully, if everyone always got exactly what he or she “earned,” and no more, we’d all be in trouble. In fact, the human race wouldn’t survive long, because few people between conception and toddlerhood can do much to earn food, care and attention. If you have children, think about the days when they needed to be fed at midnight and carried everywhere they went. Even when you found the whole setup a nuisance, you probably didn’t blame them for not coming from the womb already walking.
Of course, the years in which a person can reasonably remain all “take” and no “give” are limited. But no one should ever expect to be all “give” and no “take.” By virtue of being a human being, you have the right to benefit occasionally from others’ special efforts, to accept gifts without feeling guilty, to allow others the joy of doing things for you.
A major premise behind AA’s 12 Steps is that there is a Higher Power willing to help us not because of anything we’ve done to “earn” it, but simply because the Higher Power cares. Why should the rest of life be restricted to a system of punishment and reward?