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Overcoming Perfectionism in Recovery

Chapter 4: Overcoming Perfectionism in Recovery

Section 3: SEA's Tools for Recovery Lifestyle 
Self-Esteem Seekers Anonymous -

The SEA's Program of Recovery
By James J. Messina, Ph.D.

Overcoming Perfectionism In Recovery

What is perfectionism in recovery?

Perfectionism in recovery from low self‑esteem is:

  • The irrational belief that you must be perfect in recovery.
  • Striving to be the best, to reach the ideal, and to never make a mistake in recovery.
  • A habit that keeps you constantly alert to the imperfections, failings, and weakness in yourself as you work on recovery.
  • A level of consciousness that keeps you vigilant to any deviations from the norm, the guidelines, the way things are "supposed'' to be in recovery.
  • The underlying motive present in the fear of failure and the fear of rejection: "If I am not perfect I will fail and I will be rejected by others.''
  • A reason to fear success: "If I am successful in achieving my recovery goals, how can I maintain that level of achievement, of perfection?''
  • A rigid, moralistic outlook that does not allow for human, imperfect, or less than ideal behavior in the pursuit of recovery.
  • An inhibiting factor in recovery. It precludes commitment out of a fear of not being "good enough.''
  • The belief that no matter what you do in recovery, it will never be "good enough'' to meet your own or others' expectations.


What irrational beliefs contribute to perfectionism in recovery?

  • Everything you try in recovery must be done perfectly.
  • It is unacceptable to make a mistake in recovery.
  • You must reach the ideal no matter what.
  • If those in authority say this is the way it is supposed to be, then this is the way it is supposed to be.
  • You are a loser if you cannot be perfect in recovery.
  • It is what you achieve that is important, not who you are.
  • I have no value unless I am successful in recovery.
  • If something is worth doing, it is worth doing right.
  • If you have a setback in your efforts to change, then you'll give up trying in recovery.
  • The ideal is what is real; unless I reach the ideal, I am a failure in recovery.
  • There are so many roadblocks and pitfalls out there just waiting to keep me from succeeding in recovery; I should forget this; it's too hard.
  • If you screw up in your efforts to recover, you might as well give up; it must be too hard to achieve.
  • Don't let anyone else know the recovery goal you're working on; that way, if you don't succeed they won't consider you a failure.
  • If you can't do it right the first time, why try to do it at all?
  • There is only one way to reach the goal in recovery, the right way.
  • I'll never be able to change, why try?
  • I am a human being prone to error, frailty, and imperfection; therefore, I will never be able to accomplish recovery in an ideal way. So I'll give up.

What are the negative consequences arise from being a perfectionist in recovery:

The following are some of the consequences of being too perfectionistic in Recovery:


Increased low self‑esteem

Because a perfectionist in recovery from low self‑esteem never feels “good enough'' about personal performance, there is the possibility of feeling like a “failure'' or a “loser'' with a subsequent loss of self‑worth, self‑confidence, and self‑esteem.



Because a perfectionist in recovery never feels good about the way responsibility has been handled, a sense of shame, self‑recrimination, and guilt may result.



Since a perfectionist in recovery is convinced that achieving the ideal goal will be difficult to impossible, feelings of discouragement and pessimism arise.



Needing always to be “perfect'' in recovery, yet recognizing that it is impossible to achieve such a goal, a perfectionist is caught in a “revolving door'' of feelings that result in depression.



Needing to have everything “just so'' in recovery can lead to being inflexible, rigid, and result in a lack of spontaneity.



Being in need of an excessive amount of order and structure in recovery can lead to nit‑picky, finicky, or obsessive behavior.


Compulsive behavior

Overindulgence or the compulsive use of alcohol, drugs, food, gambling, sex, shopping, smoking, risk taking, novelty, etc. are used to medicate the “not good enough'' feelings of a perfectionist in recovery.


Lack of motivation

Believing that the goal of recovery will never be perfectly achieved can result in a lack of motivation. Change seems overwhelming, a goal always just out of reach.



Because a perfectionist in recovery is often burdened with an extreme fear of failure, fear can immobilize the person. This results in a lack of energy, effort, or creative juices being applied to improve or change problems in the recovery lifestyle.


Lack of belief in self

Knowing that one will never be able to achieve the intended goal of recovery can lead perfectionists to lose their self‑confidence. They are afraid to try to continue on in recovery.

What rational behavior is needed to overcome perfectionistic tendencies in recovery?

Rational behavior that will help to overcome perfectionism in recovery includes the ability to:

  • Accept self as a human being.
  • Forgive self for mistakes or failings.
  • Put self, back “on the wagon'' immediately after falling off.
  • Accept that the “ideal'' is only a guideline worked toward.
  • Set a realistic time frame for the achievement of recovery goals.
  • Develop patience and reduce the need to “get it done yesterday.''
  • Be easy on yourself, not to set up for failure by setting unrealistic deadlines.
  • Recognize that the human condition is one of failing, weakness, deviation, imperfection; it is acceptable to be human in the recovery process.
  • Accept that backsliding does not mean the end of the world; it is OK to pick oneself up and start over after each slip‑up in the recovery process.
  • Use “thought stopping'' techniques when you mentally scold yourself for not being “good enough.''
  • Visualize reality as it would be for a “human,'' not a “super human.''
  • Accept yourself the way you are; let go of the beliefs of how you "should be'' in recovery.
  • Enjoy success and achievement with a healthy self‑pride.
  • Eliminate the need for self-deprecation or false humility in recovery.
  • Enjoy success without the need to second guess your ability to sustain it.
  • Reward yourself for your progress in recovery.
  • Reinforce your efforts to change, even when the progress is slight.
  • Love yourself.
  • Believe that you deserve to be treated fairly by yourself.
  • Drop all unrealistic expectations and desires to be perfect or infallible in the recovery process.
  • Visualize yourself as a winner for being willing to take the time, effort, and energy to work on recovery.
  • See yourself as “winning'' even when it takes longer, more energy, and more perseverance than you had expected.
  • Let go of rigid, moralistic judgments on yourself.
  • Develop an open, compassionate understanding for the hard times, obstacles, temptations, and old behavior scripts.
  • Lessen your expectations, developed in the glow of enthusiasm for beginning a task.
  • Plan a program of recovery not doomed to fail from the beginning.
  • Realize that you will be successful even if you are not “the best'' or “the star pupil'' in recovery.

How does social support system help in overcoming perfectionism in recovery?

Social support systems can help you overcome perfectionism in recovery if you:

  • Select people who are more realistic than perfectionistic in their own lives of recovery.
  • Encourage your support system members to avoid moralistic attempts to keep you on course.
  • Have support people who forgive and forget when mistakes, offenses, or backsliding occurs.
  • Give them permission to call you on being rigid, unrealistic, or idealistic in your expectations of yourself in the recovery process.
  • Have people who can recognize and reinforce you for any positive change, no matter how slight.
  • Trust them to be open, honest, and sincere with you.


NOTE: For further information on perfectionism, look at the chapter, Overcoming Perfectionism  in Tools for Personal Growth by James J. Messina, Ph.D.