RULE 9: Stop making things worse before making them better.


The link between perfectionism and addiction has been well documented.  At first glance the word perfectionism might seem like only a minor vice, if a vice at all, and the pursuit to be perfect in recovery a sign of one's willingness and desire to change.  This, however, is not the case.  In fact, in Yale University's famous study conducted in the 1970s on the alcoholic personality, the three personality traits common to nearly every alcoholic were grandiosity, childishness, and perfectionism.  Most addicts are to one degree or another obsessed with perfection, however its roots tend to be in immaturity and inferiority rather than the virtuous pursuit of the ultimate good. 


  1. Feel an overwhelming need to be flawless
  2. Set unrealistically high standards for themselves
  3. Are overly critical of their own performance
  4. Require the constant approval of others

The difficulty is that this leads to the rigid "all-or-nothing" thinking which oscillates between total success or failure as the only two options.  In the recovering addict, high highs are just as troublesome as low lows (although it may not feel so to the individual).  Goals are set unreasonably high which makes them either impossible to meet - leading to guilt and shame - or the total avoidance and procrastination of the task to protect one's self from the disappointment of failure. 

This state of being tends to discount one's positive attributes and exaggerate the negative ones.  This is followed by a defensiveness about feedback and a strong resistance to suggestion (sound like anyone you know in recovery?) 

Underneath a drug and alcohol addiction tends to be unrealistic expectations for one's self, those around them, and the circumstances of one's life.  Unfortunately, the pain of imperfection often outweighs the temporary joy from perfection. Unless this common temperamental handicap is recognized and addressed, the chance of working through the complications that arise from it on one's own is unlikely.

Even when something is going well - for example continued sobriety - the slightest mishap can cause the individual to unravel and be inordinately hard on one's self.  This situation often leads to feelings of guilt and shame, which if intense enough for a long enough period of time, are likely to result in a reversion back to drug use. 

Expecting perfection from yourself  is a recipe for absolute disaster when it comes to recovery. We need to drive home the message from the outset: sobriety is a bumpy road and there will be many minor or major setbacks as we actively pursue a life of genuine recovery.  Setbacks do not mean that anything is wrong with your recovery! They are the rule rather than the exception.  

When an individual enters recovery, she typically does so on the heels of some very serious social, legal, familial, or professional difficulties.  There may be the temptation to begin repairing all of these situations immediately and perfectly. The trouble comes when something does not go as planned, for example an unexpected setback, which may be followed by a feeling of "what's the use."  

This brings us to RULE 9  The rule is designed specifically to lower expectations and create realistic goals for one's life.  A realistic expectation - on a daily basis - is to stop making things worse.  Trust me this is virtuous enough for most days.  Fixing the world is a monstrous task, however taking care not to worsen one's own situation and working to set our own house in order by improving relationships little by little is not only more attainable but a more noble endeavor. The long-term benefits that will accrue from making a series of responsible decisions will compound over time and lead to unbelievable improvement in one's life.