This post was originally published on December 29, 2015.
My therapist has a book in her waiting room. It suggests one technique to enhance healthy, mindful living that the user can introduce each week. I read the book. I do 48 out of 52. The only ones missing have to do with gardening and bike riding. Does that make me a perfectionist or a zealous self-improver?
There’s an expression I’ve heard in 12-step rooms: peeling the onion. This refers to the process of gradual discovery, or unwrapping, as it were, layers of truths. Also, the process makes you cry. Going through the 12 steps is supposed to facilitate this uncovering. You face the truth of your behavior, your character and your self. Then you move into helping others while continuing to work on your flaws and character defects. You address things as they come up; you don’t shy away, but dive in. Peel that damn onion.
Before AA I didn’t know what was wrong with me—why I couldn’t stop drinking or making a mess of my life. I was in constant crisis, year after year. Identifying as an alcoholic lifted a huge weight. Finally, I had an answer and a convenient program for recovery laid out in front of me. I dove in, gulping down every morsel of treatment I could wrap my sweaty fingers around. But it wasn’t enough. I still wasn’t perfect.
And there it is. The P word.
I have a specific definition of perfection in my mind. It’s clear to the last detail. I’m thin. My acne has cleared up and my hair is luscious. I do yoga and run every day. I drink green juices for lunch and eat all vegan, organic food. I’m tanned. Wealthy. I drive a nice electric car. Have a successful career. I’m happy most of the time, with the only minor irritations piercing my blissful, Zen bubble. I give back. I meditate. I go home to my equally gorgeous spouse and pet my dog. I go AA meetings only to help the newcomer. I have a routine, and I never, ever deviate. I am perfect.
Many people share their version of this fantasy, hitting the same major beats: financial success, beauty, romance and serenity. I use this image, or story, as a tool. I hold my actions up to it. Would that woman eat this cupcake? Would she ignore that program call? Or lie to her boss about being sick? Or cancel on that friend, again? Nope. Probably not.
But where do flaws become pathology? When does normal human behavior become diagnosable? Attendance at 12-step programs is voluntary. Each condition is self-diagnosed. And this presents a problem for me, and people like me. I can self-diagnose myself with just about every psychiatric condition out there. And I have.
The 12 steps are supposed to be applied to anything. We’re taught to use them in all areas of our lives. I’m lucky that there are so many meetings and fellowships where I live. People here are able to find sponsors that share their experiences and are able to offer specific solutions rather than general suggestions. We can jump around, finding new people to work with on every area of our lives. Sex, money, food, control—even feelings—have 12-step groups that eagerly await you and your problems.
I dabbled in three fellowships right at the beginning. I went to meetings and drank the coffee, but didn’t work the steps. Didn’t go so well. After a year, I started Alanon, and began to see the expanse of work in front of me. A nice, chunky layer of onion.
Rather quickly, though, other issues came up. Or, actually, they’d always been there, but they quickly became unbearable. That’s the kicker. It’s not that new issues arise (at least, not in my experience); it’s that the same old behaviors become too painful to continue. And without drugs or alcohol—the problems that screamed the loudest—the voices of my older, more shameful and less sexy habits could be heard.
Food. Relationships. Money. I have dysfunction in all these areas. (And more, probably.) Most of my friends have entered other fellowships after a few years in AA. They’ve begun attending regular meetings and working steps focused on that area of their lives.
But where does it end?
This is where my deep, shame-based perfectionism really kicks in. Never, she whispers. You’ll never be good enough, no matter how hard you work. And I believe her. So I keep peeling that damn onion.
Being self-diagnosed means that I determine which areas of my life are the most damaging, and work on those. But I’m also open to the possibility that pathological labeling, or constantly believing I’m broken, can cause harm. Still, does denial cause more?
What I arrive at is the usual answer to such a question: flexibility. Perfectionism may drive my compulsive need for self-improvement, but the fact is, I do improve. The undeniable truth is that my behaviors need to be addressed, and while I may make light of it, recovery was essential and saved my life. The old belief is that if I am perfect, I will be loved and have no problems. So if I have problems, I must not be perfect. But serenity is not the absence of conflict. It is my job to uncover, discover and discard, and not be too hard on myself.
I tackle the shame that causes my perfectionism, ignore that self-harming voice, and push forward, onward.
And maybe one day, perfectionism itself will be the thing that is treated.