Focus on Progress not Perfection

One of the biggest challenges in early recovery is the overwhelming desire to “get” recovery right this minute. People who have been dependent on substances or behaviours have used them to avoid painful feelings and to manage challenging life situations. The immediate gratification inherent in active addiction sets up a desire for instant results in all areas of life.

broken eggI have heard clients say that they want to clean up the past, feel good all the time and rebuild everything that has been damaged by addiction and they want it by Friday, thanks. This rush to have a perfect recovery as quickly as possible is counterproductive and results in bandaid solutions to deep-rooted problems.

Recovery just doesn’t happen quickly. In fact, effective recovery means choosing to do the opposite of everything you did while in active addiction. Want relief from painful emotions? Rather than looking for immediate results by reaching for the substance or initiating the behaviour, you need to sit with the emotions. Experience them.


Reach out to people for help. Accept that the only way out is through. You have years of unfelt feelings stored up inside you. You need to feel them and release them in order to heal. To recover, there is no quick fix.

Recovery language includes the phrase progress not perfection. People in recovery have to let go of wanting it all and wanting it right this minute. They need to shift to a slow, steady rate of improvement. This includes a shift from reacting impulsively in the moment, to stopping, pausing, taking a breath and responding from a calm grounded place. (More on this is found here )

slow progressWhat does progress look like? It’s about taking life one day at a time, sometimes one hour or one minute at a time. Reaching out for support to family, friends, professionals. Deciding to go to a treatment centre. Participating in recovery groups like 12-step programs. Replacing maladaptive coping strategies with healthy ones. Instead of reaching for the cigarette, take a walk. Instead of choosing a drink, meditate. Run. Walk the dog. Take a bath. You get the picture.

far fromI have heard clients bemoan how little clean time they have after a week or two. They want 10 -20 -30 years under their belts, right now. The obvious response here is that 30 years will always take 30 years. Less obvious is that the early days, weeks and months in recovery are often the hardest.

To reach a week or a month in recovery is an enormous accomplishment. To reach 24 hours, even more so. It’s difficult to acknowledge or even recognize this when you are in immediate gratification mode.

give time time

Perfectionism is simply not compatible with successful recovery. A perfectionist will tend to be very hard on herself if she misses a meeting, experiences a relapse, skips an appointment, loses her cool. The tendency will be to throw up her hands and give up. If I can’t do this perfectly, why bother?

If recovery means doing the opposite, it means valuing all of the progress that has been made, even progress that seems small or slow. It means seeing the lesson in the relapse. What really happened that led to that drink? How might it go differently the next time? Rather than bemoan falling short of perfection, there is cause for celebration when the person gets back on track. That’s the progress that matters in recovery. Perfection is impossible and derails recovery.

rainbowAnother pitfall to avoid here is making comparisons. It is never helpful to compare your recovery to some else’s, either favourably or unfavourably. Each person’s path is marked by progress and challenge. By all means learn from others in recovery, and take care not to make comparisons.

Finally perfectionism feeds procrastination. A person considering recovery will often decide that if s/he can’t get this perfect on the first try, s/he won’t try at all. Or, the timing isn’t right – I’ll wait until the perfect time. What a trap. A wise person once said I have yet to meet anyone who wishes they had waited longer to recover.
imagesIf you or someone you know is in recovery, remember to focus on progress not perfection. The former is measured in small, meaningful steps forward, every day. The latter doesn’t exist in recovery or anywhere else.

(Next month we’ll look at how life is absolutely perfect, especially when we aren’t getting what we want. Just to shake things up.)


perfect timeNotice when you are demanding perfection from yourself, your recovery or anything/anyone else.
How might you shift to seeking progress instead?
Notice when you are feeling impatient. Is perfectionism at the root of this? What would be different if you focused on progress rather than perfection?
How might you cultivate patience in your life?

Brene BrownResources

Brene Brown is an inspiring author and speaker. Look for her TED talks on You Tube. I recommend her book, The Gifts of Imperfection.