Not a lot of people know this about me, but I am a secret perfectionist.
People tend to assume I am one of life’s laid back people. They think I am chilled. Zen. A take-it-as-it-comes girl. I think this is because I am often running late and I tend to leave things to the last minute. But deep down, I am quite the perfectionist. A lot of drinkers are. I know that perfectionism played a big role in my relationship with alcohol and my attempts to stop.
As women, we have so many pressures hitting us at once and I for one felt the need to meet some high standards. I’d been to university, so I had to get a good job. And I needed to get promoted. I had to look a certain way; I couldn’t possibly be fat. I had to wear the right clothes, eat the right food, drive a good car and run marathons at the weekend. My Facebook page needed to radiate success. And don’t forget, tick-tock-tick-tock-tick-tock … in between all that there should have been successful relationships, marriage and children.
But I didn’t have all those things. And I hated that. Not achieving the required standards made me feel depressed. When I was feeling tense or stressed, the soothing qualities of alcohol were impossible to resist. When I drank, it made the nagging voices in my head go away. It turned off the constant stream of negativity. It turned me into the chilled out, optimistic person I wanted to be.
One of the ways my perfectionism manifested itself was in a distinct, all-or-nothing attitude. I’d give everything one hundred percent or nothing at all. Nowhere was this more true than in my efforts to stop drinking. I wanted to do sobriety perfectly. This meant stopping drinking and cutting out sugar and getting into yoga and eating organic quinoa. I felt sure that if I just tried hard enough, I could achieve this. I wanted to glide, swan like, into my new sober life.
When – quelle surprise – this approach failed, I made sure I fell off the wagon good and proper. Whole weekends would be lost drinking. I was a like a dieter who has one biscuit and then eats the entire pack. If I was going to have one drink, I’d sure as hell have ten.
I feel at this point, I should say something more positive about perfectionism because it wasn’t all bad. At the very least, perfectionism encourages you to set goals and be ambitious. In 2013, after I’d been sober for 100 days, I had a bit of a wobble. I’m pretty sure it was perfectionism that kicked in and said ‘if you pack it in now, your 100 days of sobriety will be be blemished. Ruined. Don’t throw this all away now.’
So perfectionism has some benefits. But on the whole, it sure is great at keeping us stuck in the same thought patterns and the same routines. So what’s the solution?
I think the good news is that just a few small shifts can make all the difference. As perfectionists we tend to think we can figure everything out ourselves, if we just keep at it. Realising we might need some help is a significant step. When I finally stopped drinking I decided to write a blog about it. At the time I told myself it was because I wanted to ‘make sense of my thoughts’. I think if that were really true I’d have just written in a notebook. Deep down, I wanted people to read my blog and to offer help and support. And that’s exactly what they did. It was a great move, even if I didn’t quite realise why at the time. (Incredibly, asking for help and talking to other people who ‘got it’ was not something I’d considered before).
The other shift I made was to start setting more realistic expectations of myself. The more I heard about other people’s experiences with alcohol, the more I realised that there was no one-size-fits-all, magic solution. ‘Stop drinking so much’ had been on my mental to do list for ages, but I’d been treating it as something that could just be ticked off overnight. When I started to give sobriety the attention it deserved, it put everything else into perspective.
These days I think I am something of a recovering perfectionist. I am better at catching myself slipping into old thought patterns, but it still happens. For example, my instinct with this website was that it wasn’t ready. I wanted to wait until it was ‘perfect’. But if I’d done that, I’d probably never launch it. And you’d certainly not be reading this. I am trying to live more by the motto ‘strive for progress not perfectionism.’ Besides, the world would be a boring place if we were all perfect, all of the time.
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I love your website, well done getting it going. I totally identify with what you are saying. I’ve had so many moments where I vowed to stop drinking, take up exercise, meditate, learn French, start dress making…the list is endless. Actually all I have to do is be sober, that’s really it. When I’m sober, the nagging ‘do this, do that’ sound in the back of my head quietens down and I can be present, which invariably means that I do some of that stuff, but at the same time it becomes less pressing, I’m less attached to it (probably because at end of the day it’s not that important). We spend so much time trying to be perfect, but we already are, we just need to acknowledge it (which we can’t when we are drinking).