The Pursuit of Perfection in Sobriety

Written By Detoxes - January 10th, 2017
The Pursuit of Perfection in Sobriety

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“Perfect is the enemy of good.” Often attributed to the French philosopher and writer Voltaire, this quote stems from another idea expressed thousands of years before by Chinese philosopher Confucius: “better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without.” What these two famous thinkers meant was that oftentimes, we lose sight of the big picture and sacrifice progress in our pursuit of perfection. It’s so easy to get wrapped up in doing something perfectly that we can end up never completing the task at hand because it’s just not “good enough.” In 12 step literature from Alcoholics Anonymous, a section of the chapter “How it Works” reads “we claim spiritual progress rather than spiritual perfection.” In sobriety, many of us must be careful not to allow perfectionism to prevent us from making progress in our recovery.

Pursuit of Perfection: A Spiritual Malady

It is commonly accepted within recovery communities that the disease model of addiction and alcoholism are diseases that are spiritual in nature. Drinking and drug use is the only solution that many addicts and alcoholics have to solve the “God-shaped hole” or void within themselves. As these individuals progress in their illness, addictive behavior severs their spiritual connection to people and to a Higher Power, thus continuing the cycle of spiritual illness. When someone gets sober and clean, one of the major suggestions for recovery is that they find and accept the direction of a Higher Power in their lives in order to remedy this spiritual ailment. This can be done in a number of ways. Many addicts and alcoholics choose to:

  • Join a 12 step fellowship and get a sponsor to guide them through the steps in pursuit of a spiritual awakening
  • Add daily prayer and meditation to their routines to develop and foster spirituality
  • Do acts of service to combat the self-centered nature of their disease and to connect with other individuals on a deep and meaningful level
  • Spend time in nature in order to connect with the world and energy around them
  • Pursue religious or spiritual practices, like church or yoga, in order to find a connection that works for them.

All of the above, and the thousands of other ways in which addicts and alcoholics seek a remedy for their spiritual malady are vital aspects of recovery. The problem is that sometimes, we get caught up in doing sobriety so perfectly, that we get stuck. In my own experience, my pursuit of perfection in completing my steps and doing a daily routine of meditation and prayer interfered with developing an authentic spiritual connection. I was so focused on doing it right that I often forgot to do it well.

Here’s why the pursuit of perfection in sobriety is a spiritual malady: the hallmark of addiction is selfishness and self-centeredness. The text of Alcoholics Anonymous says that we are “driven by a hundred forms of fear” in our active drinking and drug use. When I’m trying to be perfect, it’s because I am focused on myself: how I appear to the world, my accomplishments, and attempting to be better than my fellows in order to feed my own ego. I am also driven entirely by fear. What if I make a mistake? Will I relapse? If I am unsure of how to do my 4th step and I ask my sponsor, will she think that I’m dumb? If I share how I’m really feeling at a meeting, will other people in the room judge me? If I don’t pray the right way, will my Higher Power listen? These thoughts are similar to the pattern of thinking in active addiction: it’s all about me and what I want, and I am living in fear instead of faith. All of these focuses draw my attention away from doing the action, into my own fears and my perception of myself. As a perfectionist, I end up just checking off a to-do list- pray, meditate, call my sponsor, go to a meeting- instead of showing up authentically and being present when I do each of these things. Oftentimes, if I can’t do it perfectly, I won’t even try. In this sense, perfect is the enemy of good, and I am throwing out flawed diamonds so I can pick up ordinary pebbles.

So What’s the Solution?

How do we abandon the pursuit of perfection and start focusing on progress and growth? Well, for starters, keep in mind that it can’t be done perfectly- that’s what we’re trying to avoid! But there are some concrete steps that can be taken to shift your focus from perfection to authentic recovery. Here are some of the ways I moved from rigid, self-centered fear into faith in my sobriety:

  • Be gentle with yourself. My sponsor used to say “put the bat down,” meaning that I needed to stop beating myself up. Rather than focusing on what I was doing wrong, it was helpful for me to focus on the positive changes I was making and to simply learn from mistakes instead of obsessing over them.
  • Seek out different ways to connect spiritually. To avoid a “to-do list” sobriety, I started to explore ways to grow my faith. Through this, I learned that there is no “right” or “wrong” way to pray or meditate, simply different methods that work for different people. Switching it up by trying new things, like journaling for prayer or walks on the beach to meditate, helped me to be present in the moment and to grow my faith.
  • Be honest. Recovery is not about judgment. In sober communities, you are never alone- someone else has always experienced something similar to what you are experiencing right now. It’s not about looking good, it’s about being vulnerable so that others can help you by sharing their own struggles and strengths. Being open about your feelings is a way to avoid perfectionism.

At the end of the day, the only thing I have ever done perfectly in my sobriety is not picking up a drink or a drug. And that’s the nature of recovery: we make mistakes, but we try to learn from them and do better every day, always growing and living in the faith that our journey is guided by a Higher Power who loves us in spite of our imperfections. Sometimes, it’s all about taking that first step and making a start. If you’re ready for that, would love to help. Call us at 800-232-0657 to begin your journey.

Medically Reviewed: September 25, 2019

Dr Ashley

Medical Reviewer

Chief Editor


All of the information on this page has been reviewed and verified by a certified addiction professional.

Dr Ashley Murray obtained her MBBCh Cum Laude in 2016. She currently practices in the public domain in South Africa. She has an interest in medical writing and has a keen interest in evidence-based medicine.

All of the information on this page has been reviewed and verified by a certified addiction professional.