Those in early recovery from substance use disorders usually don’t like the person they see in the mirror. They often wonder if they’re strong enough to resist a severe craving. They’re often unsure if they can succeed if they return to school or work. They’re concerned about how they will react with family. Some even avoid looking at themselves because they are afraid of what they might discover.
Such low self-confidence and low self-esteem is a barrier to getting over addictions. Recovery demands bring comfortable with who you are, and who you are, includes not merely recognizing strengths but also accepting personal limitations and imperfections.
Imperfection is a natural condition of being human. It’s easy enough to be very intellectual and agree that humans are not perfect; after all, to err is human. But when it comes to accepting personal imperfections, many people in early recovery struggle.
We’re All Imperfect
Alcoholics Anonymous promotes the idea that alcoholics, like the rest of us, are not perfect. Bill Wilson, the main person behind AA’s success, admitted openly that he was imperfect. AA’s step 10 talks about taking an ongoing personal inventory, precisely because AA recognizes that members will screw up. The key to the good life is to recognize our imperfectness, make amends, and try not to screw up again.
In psychology, we talk about “perfectionism.” It’s not a good thing. Although psychologists define perfectionism in several ways, one of the most common is that perfectionism is about presenting an image to the outside world. The perfectionist doesn’t like to be seen by others as imperfect. They want people to see them as excelling at playing music or golf, at carpentry or fixing the car, at dancing or cooking.
But perfectionists live a very constricted life because human beings are so limited that they can’t be competent at more than a few things. Most people were impressed that Ken Dryden went to law school while he was playing goaltender in the NHL. It was very impressive, but it was only two things. If the perfectionist wants to be seen as competent, he or she won’t be doing very much.
Overcoming perfectionism demands accepting yourself as a flawed human being. It’s okay to be thorough in what you do, but don’t try to be perfect.
Psychologists typically define shame as a personal belief that there is something about “me” that is defective. Compare shame with guilt. Someone suffering from guilt has a personal belief that he or she did something that went against their values. Shame, on the other hand, is my belief that there is something wrong with me as a human being.
Those suffering from addictions tend to choose shame over guilt. They harbour the feeling that they are flawed human beings.
The key to getting past shame is to accept that to err is to human. Each of us is imperfect. Each of us has done things we’re not happy about. In fact, the reason we feel bad is that we have done something that went against our values, went against the very things that are important to us. We did something that wasn’t who we are. If you feel bad about an action or an attitude, this is good evidence that it’s about your behaviour, not about you as a person.
Ernie Kurtz, an addiction expert, wrote a book with Katherine Ketcham called The Spirituality of Imperfection. It’s a fascinating book, which proposes that we not merely accept but embrace the idea that we’re all imperfect. Unlike the view that we are defective because we don’t live up to certain standards, the book suggests that embracing imperfection is the way to tap into the spiritual aspects of the human condition.
Embracing perfection is not about looking at yourself and everyone else as a bunch of screwups. This attitude never made anyone happy. And it’s not about giving yourself permission to be a bonehead. “Yeah, I lied to you about where I was last night, but it’s okay because I’m imperfect, just like you are.” It doesn’t mean that I don’t have to make amends or try not to make the same mistake twice.
Embracing imperfection is more like accepting reality. It means that I embrace that I’m human. Embracing yourself as fully human is essential for recovery. We’ve talked many times in the online program about the necessity to have a good understanding of who you are. That’s because recovery demands you to live a personally meaningful life. Good self-awareness is the foundation. Being able to answer the question “Who am I?”, is necessary to reach out into the world and start doing things that are personally meaningful to you.
Benefits of Embracing Imperfection
Recovering from addiction demands embracing the reality that all of us are imperfect. One benefit is the ability to look in the mirror and accept the person looking back at you. Even if you don’t really like you see in the mirror, you can tell yourself, “I may not like what this person has done, but the poor behaviour is not who I am.”
Embracing perfection is necessary to forgive others. If I recognize that I’m imperfect, I’ll recognize that everyone else is imperfect. This appreciation that we’re all human goes a long way to overcome anger at those who hurt us.
I once knew a woman who said it took her 10 years to forgive the man who hurt her. She had to work hard at it, and it certainly wasn’t easy. But she told me it was worth it.