Practice, Not Perfectionism, in Recovery

by Cindy Hardy ❘  

The Time to Start Recovery Without Perfectionism Is Now

Putting off decisions to make change comes up all throughout the recovery process, especially when the goal is perfectionism. For example, a person may think that working the fourth step of the 12-step program is a very big decision and may begin to ask people (sometimes lots of people) how they began that step. Again, for some this delay keeps a person stuck permanently because there is no “right way” to begin the fourth step.

Fortunately for most, the person realizes the only right time is now and begins the process of their own fourth step. There is no “exactly the right time” to make a decision to change behaviors that are causing problems. When a person eventually realizes the best time is now, they have finally gotten out of their own way. They have moved from not accepting any excuses to keep doing what they have always done and begin to acknowledge the reasons to take action. There is a saying, “the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, the next best time is now.”

Change Takes Action

Change does not come from information and education alone. Change takes action! A person may recognize the need to change a behavior, like replacing negative thinking with positive thinking, as part of their treatment plan for managing depression. This means they have taken the steps of acknowledging depression, receiving information about how negative thinking contributes to depression, identified negative thinking patterns, and made a decision to change this behavior. The world, however, is full of recognized and identified problems, good plans, and really good intentions.

Yes, there has been change because the person has more knowledge than before and has a plan where one did not exist. But knowledge only has the potential to change a person. Actual change requires the action of working the plan. It will take effort to actually begin to replace each negative thought with a positive one, and then continuing to practice these thoughts until they become as automatic as the old self-defeating behaviors once were. One of the sayings in the 12-step program, “putting one foot in front of the other,” can be applied to the change process.

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The Problem with Excuses

It is common for a person with an unwanted diagnosis to continue to look for the “loopholes.” This can come in may forms like finding fault with the treatment team, the treatment guidelines or rules, or the approach of a specific counselor or therapist. When a person doesn’t like the message, it becomes easier to discount the messenger. A person may believe or even hope that if the treatment is wrong, then perhaps the diagnosis is wrong too.

If a person can find a “reason” to leave treatment, then the effort of changing behaviors won’t be needed. People have been known to leave treatment because the room temperature was, in their opinion, too warm. It may help to realize in these cases when the old behaviors win, any “reason” will do. This can include difficulty with a fellow group member, problems at home, or any distraction from the treatment process. When a person becomes ready to make changes these “reasons to discount or leave treatment” are seen for what they really are, excuses, and no excuse to leave will be good enough! The recovery process only asks that each person keep an open mind and become willing to take what they want and leave the rest.

Practice Makes Perfect, but Perfectionism Prevents Change

Many people stop at the threshold of actually making a change because they want to be able to do a new behavior, like healthy communication, perfectly. A person can challenge that type of thinking by remembering the only way to learn a new behavior is to practice it. When a person learns to ride a bike, they don’t sit on the curb and say, “Well, I am not going to do that until I can do it well or perfectly.” That would mean never even getting on the bike. Learning to ride a bike well takes practice and practice means falling off a few times, hitting a few curbs, learning how to negotiate bike riding in different situations like gravel or puddles, and figuring out things like taking along a water bottle and wearing comfortable clothing and shoes.

One way to neutralize perfectionism is to laugh at its absurdity. This can help a person see that perfectionism is unreasonable and impossible, and it can be liberating to realize a person can grow to become more human but never perfect. When patterns of behaviors, thoughts, reactions, and feelings have been practiced over and over for many years it will take practice to change them.

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