Progress Not Perfection

The Twelve Step program of recovery encourages members to aim for progress, not perfection. But addicts are commonly a perfectionistic bunch. Any hint of failure or setback shuts us down completely. Fear of failure paralyzes us from even getting started. The founders of the Alcoholics Anonymous program understood this. And thus we have this directive to aim for growth over mastery. But in the context of recovery, what does progress over perfection look like?

If you have sought a rigorous approach to recovery, you know that a thorough and disciplined daily practice is essential. We follow our food plans to the letter with no exceptions. We call our sponsors at the appointed time. We are detailed in our working of the steps. We are meticulous with our daily inventory. There’s a lot of heavy lifting is involved, but we remember that our days of enslavement to food and body were no picnic either. Seeing the benefits promised by a life in recovery, we commit to do whatever it takes to get well.

Compulsive eaters share a few common character defects, one of which is shame. Many of us grew up in unsupportive environments where we had no freedom to make mistakes or to learn by doing. Perfection was the only option. But far from encouraging us to be our best, this kind of pressure forced us deeper into our addiction. We could not cope with the stress of trying to be perfect, of never making a mistake, of needing to say the right thing. The result was a sort of life paralysis. We became workaholics addicted to success, we hid our true selves so that no one could criticize our shortcomings, or we pulled out of the game all together for fear that we’d never measure up anyways. We bring all of these fears and maladaptive patterns with us into recovery.

But these life patterns don’t serve us well. Recovery is a place of safety, not repression. We have come to the Twelve Step program not because we were so perfect but because we are weak and we need help. Finally we have a context and an environment in which to grow, develop, learn to stand on our own two sober feet, perhaps fall down, and then get up again.

Yet we do not take recovery lightly. Recovery requires everything we can give it. We are, in essence, fighting for our lives. The compulsion to overeat, restrict, binge, and purge is always present-ready to pull us in if we are not vigilant. The program is a disciplined one and we are stronger as a whole when each link is committed to strength and effort.

But isn’t perfection a good thing? Aren’t we aiming to be the best we can? Indeed we are striving to do our very best but there is a problem with perfection. As humans, we will never attain true perfection in this life. While setting a high bar is noble, a hunger for perfection can be poisonous. We can never be good enough. If an addict in recovery insists upon perfection at all costs, she is setting herself up for failure since it is an unattainable goal. Rather than seeking consistent growth, development, and improvement, the addict aiming for perfection cares only about one result. When she does not achieve what she has set out to do, she may experience disappointment, depression, and even the level of despair that leads to a slip. In the quest to be perfect and appear perfect to her fellows, she has missed the point of the program. Her opportunity to recover has been eclipsed by an addiction to being perfect. The program has not failed her, her faulty expectations have.

So how do we approach recovery? Balance. We hold simultaneously to "progress not perfection" and "give it all you’ve got." Everyday we do what’s in front of us to do. We put the steps into practice, keep our commitments to our sponsors and fellows, follow our food plans, and do all we can to practice the Twelve Step principles in all our affairs. But we also learn to love and cherish ourselves. Throughout our addictive years we have been harsh taskmasters, putting a heavy yoke upon ourselves. In recovery it is time to learn that God loves us even in our broken state. We must practice the belief that His burden is easy and His yoke is light.

"The principles we have set down are guides to progress… We claim spiritual progress rather than spiritual perfection" (Alcoholics Anonymous).

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