Holding yourself to high standards can seem like a laudable endeavor. After all, those who do tend to succeed, eke out on top, and overcome more obstacles than those who give themselves more breaks or find excuses to just coast by, right?
Well, not always.
Putting pressure on yourself can indeed pay off, but not if that pressure is obsessively applied. Research shows that striving for challenging goals – including getting and staying sober – can backfire if you don’t know when to ease the breaks and find satisfaction in the fruits of your labor.
Two Types of Perfectionism: Positive and Negative
Perfectionism has been tied to a host of negative mental health outcomes, including an increased risk of substance misuse, depression, and suicidal ideation. Perfectionism, however, is not all bad. At least, not if it’s the “positive” kind that psychologists have found to underlie more effective coping strategies and bode better for wellbeing.
Writing in the journal Addiction & Health, researchers Nahid Kaviani, M.Sc, Jouroush Mohammadi, Ph.D., and Edhbal Zaredi, Ph.D., say positive perfectionism is defined as “choosing goals and high personal standards, and striving to achieve the rewards that come with success, while maintaining the ability to be satisfied with one’s performance.” In essence, then, “positive perfectionism” is pushing oneself in a more balanced manner, but knowing when to give oneself a break and when to stop striving so as to reap the benefits of, or appreciate, the fruits of one’s labor.
Negative perfectionism, by contrast, involves “choosing uncompromising and high standards that are not accessible; it is characterized as inability to enjoy one’s performance, uncertainty, anxiety about one’s capabilities, stress, and depression,” Kaviani et al. explain. Negative perfectionism may strike some as similar to addiction in that it is also characterized by an inability to stop, to know when enough is enough, and to experience satisfaction without craving for an ever-elusive “more.”
Writing in a 1998 issue of Personality and Individual Differences, psychiatrist Brett A. Hart and colleagues at Denver Health Medical Center, hypothesize that the less adaptive perfectionist is motivated by fear of failure while the more adaptive perfectionist is motivated by goal achievement. Dovetailing on the perspective of Frost, Maren, Lahart and Rosenblate (1990), they posit that “the psychological problems associated with perfectionism are probably more closely associated with these critical evaluation tendencies than with the setting of excessively high standards.”
This wise prediction presaged the findings of future studies of a positive association between self-criticism and more severe symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a negative association between self-criticism and quality of life, as well as an increased risk of engaging in compulsive exercise and an increased risk of self-harm among individuals who engage in high levels of self-criticism.
It’s Okay to Strive, But Don’t Self-Condemn
Setbacks, slip-ups, and relapses are part of the recovery process. Interpreting these inevitable outcomes as failures or signs that all your effort has been for naught can be a recipe for disaster when it comes to mental health, wellbeing, as well as mustering the motivation to get back on the wagon (so to speak).
It’s okay to push yourself to be the best you can be and set goals that take a great deal of effort and perseverance to reach. But one of the most important factors in being able to attain those goals (not to mention maintaining the stamina required to achieve them) is being able to recognize just how far you’ve come, as well as recognizing when enough is enough.
Don’t beat yourself up for having cravings. Instead, recognize them as a transient state of emotion that can and will pass, validate that they are indeed difficult to bear, and know that you’re not alone in your experience of them. Stop telling yourself you’re weak if you feel overwhelmed, vulnerable, or afraid. (Consider these emotional experiences as evidence that you’re human and keep in mind that, like cravings, these feelings, too, will pass.)
Remember, if you can’t get to the gym as planned, if you indulge in a dessert item every once in a while, or if you find yourself engaging in other negative behaviors you previously did before you got sober, take a pause and recognize that you can and will get yourself back on track – and that beating yourself up for not being perfect only prevents you from achieving perfection.
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