While perfectionists may often be successful in their careers, they are often unhappy in many other parts of their lives – and that can lead to substance abuse and addiction issues.
Some people take on a pompous tone when telling people what perfectionists they are. However, a true perfectionist – as opposed to a high achiever – will often view their perfectionism as a curse. And many will develop a drug or alcohol dependence because of it.
When it comes to being a high achiever, there is no doubt that it has its benefits. These people set attainable goals of a high standard, and set out to achieve them while typically enjoying their journey along the way. While they will still, of course, be disappointed if they don’t reach their goal – they typically bounce back quickly and try again. Most successful people would be considered high achievers. A perfectionist on the other hand, will set goals so high that they often fail – or go through great pains and make many sacrifices (such as health, family, social life, etc.) in order to obtain these goals. The end result, not the journey, is the only thing that matters. And when they do achieve their goals, they can often only see the tiny imperfections where they might have done better, instead of being happy and proud that they achieved such a great feat.
When a perfectionist fails to achieve the perfection they strive for, (let’s face it – nobody or nothing is perfect) it can lead to bouts of depression, anxiety, and loss of self-worth. For these people, achieving their goals is everything and failing in them is horrifying. Their struggle for perfection will also make them feel alienated from others and alone.
The fear of making mistakes – and not measuring up to self-made perfect standards – can also create severe and chronic anxiety. Anxiety, depression, alienation and loneliness are all feelings that often go hand-in-hand with addiction. After years of self-bullying, trying to be and do all things perfect, many perfectionists feel so beat down, that they try to drown out these feelings with alcohol and drugs.
Of course, self-medicating these issues is only going to cause more trouble in the long-run. As the user abuses substances on a more frequent basis to drown out the pain, the brain itself forgets how to deal with these emotions in its own way – and becomes dependent on the substance.
Asking for help as a perfectionist
For most true perfectionists, there are two (sometimes subconscious) rules to live by:
1. Strive only for perfection – anything even slightly less is not good enough
2. Do not ask for help, as asking for help is a sign of weakness
Because of this, perfectionists are often the last people to ask for help when they become addicted. Denial is a huge part of any addiction, but for a perfectionist it can be even stronger. They can’t and simply won’t believe that they could possibly not be in control of a part of their life. If they are lucky, some may manage to get sober once on their own, through sheer determination of showing their own power. However, it usually leads straight into a relapse as they have not received any guidance in how to handle the inner demons that were causing them to use in the first place – and which are likely the driving force behind the relapse as well.
Manhattan-based addictions counsellor, Dr. Paul Hokemeyer, commented in an article that “The patients I treat are highly successful in the external aspects of their lives – they are wealthy, powerful, incredibly smart and often household names. Their demand for perfection has enabled them to excel in traditional notions of success, but turns against them when they need to resource the compassion for and acceptance of their humanness that will enable them to succeed as recovering women and men living in an imperfect world”.
Perfectionists and Addiction (part II), will address the difficulties of recovery as a perfectionist, and how to make it through successfully.
If you or someone you know is struggling with perfectionism and/or addiction, contact a professional for guidance.