#48 Rethinking perfectionism
9 of your (and my) questions about perfectionism and addiction, answered by the author of The Perfectionist's Guide To Losing Control, Katherine Morgan Schafler
“Perfectionism is powerful; it’s a force. Like any power, perfectionism is dichotomous in nature; it can be constructive or destructive, depending on how you manage it. And yes, perfectionism can absolutely be useful.” - Katherine Morgan Schafler
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Here’s something fun: I spent five hours trying to introduce the below Q&A on perfectionism and addiction, and Katherine Morgan Schafler’s book, The Perfectionist’s Guide to Losing Control, only to trash everything I’d written and send you this version—written in thirty minutes—instead.
Which I think speaks to why this topic, and Katherine’s book, impacted me so much. Not because I am a perfectionist (which I am, probably obviously) but because perfectionism is a highly nuanced, complicated, largely misunderstood concept. Its products are rewarded, its process is embarrassing, and when someone says “You’re being such a perfectionist about this,” they’re not usually paying you some kind of compliment. They’re telling you about something they think you should stop.
When we think of perfectionism, we’re typically thinking of something we shouldn’t be, a thing we shouldn’t do, or what we need to correct for. As Katherine points out in her (incredible) book: most of the literature that exists on the topic is about acceptance and minimization; not the cultivation of the adaptive features of perfectionism.
This post on perfectionism, and Katherine’s book and work, take a different tack and suggests that instead of seeing perfectionism as this thing that needs to be destroyed or overcome, we start looking to it as one of our superpowers and strengths.
//about the book
I loved it, even though I was sure I wouldn’t because it smelled like self-help and I am not in the part of my life where I need to keep reading about how to fix myself—I’m in the part where I need to let myself be. That being said, I would not classify the book as self-help (though there were prescriptive parts to it). The bulk of the text is dedicated to story-telling, context and world-building, research, and logical arguments about how to engage with perfectionism. It is basically an ultimate guide on what perfectionism is and isn’t; a perfectionist’s bible if you will.
It was a surprising, tender, enlightening, and empowering read, and for any of you who resonate with anything of what I said in the first few paragraphs, or who’ve been trying to get their perfectionism under control, it might be for you. The book was also funny as hell—Katherine has a way of writing that makes you want to turn the page. She’s a presence, she’s firm, she’s someone you’ll absolutely wish was your therapist, and she’s so forgiving of herself and the rest of us that you can’t help but come out the other side of reading TPGTLC a little gentler.
//about the Q&A
After reading her book, I asked Katherine, who has worked in private practice, corporate settings, and an addiction treatment center, to answer some questions I had (and some others I gathered from my Instagram stories a few weeks back) about the intersection of addiction and perfectionism. We narrowed it down to the 9 questions we thought were most useful for this article, which are answered below.
Because this is a long article and my brain is moooosh from the trying, links and resources (aka Ten Things Right Now) are coming in a separate email on Friday (paid subscribers). I also posted a thing I wrote about perfectionism 8 years ago, which is cute and also shocking in how much the same I still am in terms of what I struggle with; parts of it could have been written today, which makes me think of question #8 below about the intersection of perfectionism (the distance between your ideal and what is), and ADHD (what you’ll never be no matter how hard you try or something).
9 questions about perfectionism and addiction, answered by Katherine Morgan Schafler, author of The Perfectionist’s Guide to Losing Control
1. How do you define perfectionism? What do we get wrong about it most? Do you think perfectionism can be useful?
There are certain words, words like trauma, grief, and love – that are better left described than defined because they don’t fit inside a definition. Perfectionism is one such word. I think of it as an innate, natural human impulse. Perfectionism reflects our healthy desire to actualize the ideals we imagine in our minds and hearts. Experiencing the impulse toward perfectionism is part of being human, hence why it persists across time and culture.
One thing we get wrong about perfectionism is thinking it only shows up in “Type A” ways, like being super organized, for example. We animate our perfectionistic impulses through our thoughts, behaviors, feelings, and interpersonal relationships. You can experience emotional perfectionism – wanting to feel “perfectly over someone,” for example. Perfectionism is powerful; it’s a force. Like any power, perfectionism is dichotomous in nature; it can be constructive or destructive, depending on how you manage it. And yes, perfectionism can absolutely be useful.
2. Do you see a correlation between substance misuse and perfectionism? What does that look like and what would be your best piece of advice to a perfectionist who is trying to change their relationship with a substance? Work on the perfectionism or work on the drinking?
The short answer is 100% absolutely all the way yes. The longer version is that perfectionism isn’t your problem. Your problem is that you respond to missteps with punishment instead of compassion.
I define punishment as creating more pain for yourself in an effort to motivate you to stop or start something. So punishment can look like withholding something you know is good for you, or continuing to engage in something you know will hurt you – both generate pain. Here’s what a punitive response to perfectionism might look like with regard to substance misuse: “Ugh, I said I wasn’t gonna drink last night and I did. I ruined my sobriety streak. I feel like a piece of shit. I’m never gonna get it together, might as well just drink tonight since I have nothing to lose now.” Instead of examining a misstep from a place of curiosity about how to better support yourself next time, you immediately punish yourself through negative self-talk (which makes you feel worse), drinking more (which makes you feel worse), and not doing anything kind or restorative for yourself (which also makes you feel worse).
You don’t heal yourself by hurting yourself. Punishment doesn’t work. When we feel bad and we feel like shit, we’re way less motivated to make healthy choices. The best advice I can offer is to replace punishment with self-compassion. Self-compassion is a 3-step resilience-building skill [see next question] – it’s not just being really polite to yourself and it’s definitely not letting yourself off the hook. Self-compassion strengthens you so that you have the energy to hold a bigger perspective and engage real support. Self-compassion isn’t a “nice little extra” or a “bonus points” kind of thing – it is a mandatory skill you need to learn if you want to grow. Without self-compassion, the best you can hope for is stagnation. Work on replacing punishment with self-compassion and the rest will begin to fall into place.
3. I talked at length in my book about how failure is mostly a celebrated thing, but that when it comes to addiction and recovery, failure isn’t failure, it’s relapse, return to use, Day 1 again. Let’s pretend I’m your client, and I made it ten months (or ten years) and then drank again, and I’m at the bottom of my shame spiral and feeling like I just threw it all away and can’t trust myself at all and I’m doomed to drink forever. What do I do with all that?
If you were my client, I’d walk you through a self-compassionate response. First, that would look like allowing you to feel like shit and acknowledging that you’re in a serious amount of pain. It hurts to fall. I wouldn’t pretend like you didn’t fall. I’d help you pay witness to that pain. I’d also do something simple and kind for you to model what I hope you’d do for yourself outside of my office. I might ask you if you need some water, maybe offer you a blanket. This is the “kindness” step in Dr. Kristen Neff’s 3 step model for self-compassion. To be kind to yourself, you must let yourself see that you’re in pain, then offer yourself some simple comfort (affectionate words, a moment alone, a bath).
Next, we’d talk about how everyone falls. We’d discuss how common your problem (the relapse) is – how normal, natural, and human it is. Maybe we’d listen to stories of other people’s relapses. This is the “common humanity” step in Neff’s 3-step self-compassion framework. I’d encourage you let go of the somewhat narcissistic notion that you are the only human being on the planet who has ever had to deal with a relapse. I’d remind you just how regular and common your problem is, thereby emphasizing that you’re not alone and there’s nothing wrong with you – this is hard because it’s hard. It’s hard for everyone. It’s a common problem in humanity. We’d reframe a relapse as an opportunity to better understand where you need more support instead of seeing a relapse as starting back at square one, or as proof that you’re eternally doomed.
Lastly, we’d practice “mindfulness,” another leg on Neff’s stool of self-compassion. Instead of asking yourself, “How do I stop feeling so much shame about this,” I’d encourage you to ask yourself a more useful question, “What else do I also feel?” Mindfulness is about making space for your whole experience, not just the part that’s resonating with you at the moment. You acknowledge your difficult feeling and let it stay with you, and you also scan your emotional landscape for other feelings and thoughts you may not be immediately in touch with.
Are you looking forward to dinner with a friend soon? Are you feeling relieved that at least you’re talking to someone about your relapse? Is any part of you proud of the sober experiences you’ve been building? Are you curious, angry, playful, sensual, resentful? Is your sense of humor intact? Are you heartbroken? Mindfulness is not about trying to get yourself in a positive or neutral space as much as it’s about recognizing that one feeling does not define your entire personhood. By asking yourself what else you also feel, you don’t allow one singular feeling to eclipse the entirety of your experience and overtake your identity. Feelings are just feelings, they’re not who you are.
4. A reader asked: “I had sober sex for the first time, and it felt not sober. What tf was that? It was scary.” Walk us through how a statement like that ties back to perfectionism, and what we do with experiences like this.
When your baseline for a long time is being fucked up, and then you get sober, being sober feels fucked up. It’s normal to experience a steep learning curve when it comes to engaging in activities that you once couldn’t have imagined doing sober. Think: Thanksgiving dinner, sex, going on vacation, dates, cooking a meal without a glass of wine on the counter to sip from.
Let’s take your word, “scary.” I’m not sure what you mean by that. If you’re not sure what you mean by “scary” either, here’s an exercise to try. Think of emotions as a triangle. The top point of the triangle is the feeling you’re most in touch with, in this case, “scared.” It’s rare that we feel only one thing; let’s assume there are at least two other feelings attached to this experience. What other emotions make up the other two points of the triangle?
Once you increase awareness of what you’re feeling, you can begin to examine how that constellation of feelings does or does not match your expectation. For example, if having sober sex felt scary, exciting, and embarrassing – how does that match your expectation of what you think sober sex should feel like? Perhaps you expect sober sex to feel empowering? Energizing? Easy? Natural? Sweet?
Discrepancies in experience and expectation can help you understand two things. One: discrepancies can help you understand your true wants (for example, you felt scared, alone, and unsafe, and you want to feel more assured, connected, and safe). And/or two: discrepancies can help you understand that you’re holding yourself to an idealized version of an experience (perfectionism).
You may be encountering emotional perfectionism here; you have an ideal in your mind about what you’re supposed to feel. When your experience doesn’t match the ideal you’re holding, you think something is wrong. There’s no right way to feel just like there’s no right way to laugh. Emotional perfectionism is one of the 5 types of perfectionism I highlight in my work.
5. A reader asked: “How can I stop thinking about my sobriety only in terms of how many days sober I have under my belt?”
Such a great question. You stop thinking about your sobriety in terms of sober days by holding a distinction between goals and intentions. A goal is a clear demarcation of quantifiable achievement; an intention is more sophisticated. Intentions are not expressed through what you do but how you do it, not if you do it but why you do it. Your intention is the energy and purpose behind your striving. Your goal is what you’re striving for (30 days, for example). Focus more on the intention than the goal.
It’s not sober days you necessarily want, it’s what you imagine the sober days will create a path for: a lifestyle in which you feel at ease with yourself. You want to enjoy your life, build quality relationships, pursue work that matters to you, take pleasure in being alive, give yourself a chance to grow, learn, celebrate, etc. These are your intentions (I obviously don’t know what your intentions are, but fill in whatever feels right to you).
Counting days can be helpful in offering you a sense of progression and pride over your goal, but if you were sober for 3,000 days and were still living in a way that led to poor quality relationships, no enjoyment, no growth, no learning, no celebration, etc. – well then, those 3,000 days wouldn’t represent much progress. Just like it’s not the number of conversations you have with someone that builds connection, it’s the quality of conversation - it’s not the number of days of sobriety that matter most, it’s what you fill those days up with. Instead of asking, “Am I achieving my goal?” ask a more useful question, “Am I honoring my intention.”
6. A reader asked: “If I’m not working on myself continuously I feel bad. How does always striving relate to addiction?”
Addiction is about being trapped in the mentality that there’s only one way to get what you need, which is to use. For example, “I cannot possibly get through the holidays without drinking.” Always striving to grow through “doing” relates to addiction because you see only one way to be your best self, which is to constantly be doing stuff.
Constantly doing stuff leads to burn out. You need rest. Literally, for survival - like water and air, rest is a need. Those who are truly committed to bringing out their best rest, and they rest well. Just like you have to open yourself up to the idea that it might be possible to go to a holiday party and not drink, you have to open yourself up to the idea that resting is not a reflection of you hitting “pause” or “stop” on your growth; it is in fact the opposite.
7. A reader asked: “What good perfectionist can’t even do the dishes?”
There’s a saying in the therapy world: 90% of questions are statements in disguise. So, for example, when someone asks, “Do I look okay in this?” What they’re really stating is: I’d love some reassurance about the way I look right now. Since speaking in statements is super awkward, we pose our statements as questions. The statement I hear in your question is: “I’m frustrated because I feel like I can’t even get the most basic tasks right.” I also hear a punitive tone; I’m guessing you’re in punishment mode.
Look, forget everything you think you know about perfectionism. Perfectionism isn’t about getting all the dishes done, being punctual, orderly, or rigid; perfectionism is kaleidoscopic. It’s beautiful, it’s energizing, it’s a fucking nightmare, it shows up in all kinds of ways, for all kinds of reasons. It can help you or hurt you depending on how you manage it. I detail 5 types of perfectionists (take the quiz here to find your type), and 5 types of perfectionism in my book, The Perfectionists Guide to Losing Control.
But if you don’t get my book, if you never encounter my work again, if you hear nothing else from this newsletter, please hear this: No matter who you are or what you do, perfectionist or not, “alcoholic” or not: if you punish yourself, you will stay stuck in your suffering.
8. “How does neurodiversity, specifically ADHD, interact with perfectionism (and addiction).” This was another reader question and it was the question I had throughout reading your book as well; I kept wondering if this information could be applied to people with ADHD or do we need a separate book?
Lol on the separate book part. You are so funny. …Yea, this is a really interesting question. There’s no quick, bullet point-y answer. In the broadest sense, people tend to develop addictions when they don’t know how else to manage their mental health [or neurodivergence]. We self-medicate, essentially.
The more you know about mental illnesses or maladaptive patterns, the more agency you feel over managing your mental health (thereby decreasing the likelihood for you to self-medicate through addiction). Personal agency and motivation operate in tandem. ADHD, however, can be hard to diagnose in the therapist’s office because the conditions for therapy (one-on-one attention, guided conversations, a somewhat novel/stimulating environment, etc.) are the same conditions under which symptoms of ADHD are less likely to present. In other words, a lot of adults are dealing with ADHD and don’t know it, even if they’re in therapy.
The “messy perfectionist” is the closest perfectionist personality profile to ADHD. Messy perfectionists tend to start a million projects and love to have their hands in several pots at once, but when they encounter the imperfect tedium of the middle, they may abandon the process. For messy perfectionists, abandoning tasks is not about a lack of ability to hold attention. Messy perfectionists abandon tasks because they’re trying to abrogate the loss that comes with committing to something. You know that saying, “You can do anything, but you can’t do everything?” Messy perfectionists tend to reject that saying. ADHD is different.
In ADHD, symptoms like difficulty focusing or bringing a task to completion, frequently interrupting others, difficulty engaging quietly in leisure activities, or feeling a chronic, internal sense of relentlessness – all these symptoms stem from the way your brain works as opposed to the perspective you’re holding.
This is an oversimplification of the difference: If you change a messy perfectionist’s perspective, their behavior is likely to change. If you change the perspective of someone suffering from ADHD, their behavior is less likely to change in the sense that they’re still going to be impulsive and inattentive at times, BUT, importantly, their willingness to connect to support changes, and they can make behavioral changes that help them manage ADHD (drinking less coffee, taking medication, being conscious of which social settings exacerbate undesirable symptoms, etc.).
In short, my book will not help people better manage or understand ADHD.
9. Finally, my favorite concept in your book is the one about “trying parties” where, for instance, you had a party with your family for trying to write a book, before any significant progress was made (book was done, book was edited, etc.). I’ve never in my life celebrated just trying something; only milestones. Can you talk about this and why this is such a powerful suggestion and practice? How might someone in recovery from addiction use a “trying party”? And how might they work with a thought like "if I celebrate half-assing it I'll reinforce half-assery" (my words).
Leading a self-defined life means that you define what is important to you. If you don’t define what’s important for yourself, you’ll default to the culture’s priorities: money, rank, efficiency/speed, role achievement (wife, mother, homeowner, famous person, etc.) and so on.
What’s considered “normal” to celebrate in our culture is based on culture’s priorities, not our own priorities. We celebrate promotions, winning, best-seller lists, speed (30 under 30), balloons that spell out “1 million followers!” Nothing’s wrong with celebrating any of that stuff.
What’s not great is when something is important to you and it’s not celebrated. Celebration is a signal to yourself and the universe: this matters to me, this is a big deal, this is worthy of acknowledgement, pause, cake! In my opinion, celebration is a beautiful way of reinforcing your values to yourself. I decided that one thing I value, what makes me proud of myself, is trying really hard at something. That’s why I had a trying party in the midst of writing my book.
To be totally honest, I don’t know that I would’ve actually thrown a party if my daughter wasn’t there to see it. I had this moment of mini-panic while writing the book, of like, “If I only celebrate her when she wins, what is that teaching her about the courage to try? That it’s not worth celebrating courage unless that courage is notarized through external achievement? If I only celebrate myself when I’m done, what is that teacher her about when to feel proud of yourself?”
I needed the push to celebrate, and I get that someone reading this might need that, too. It can be hard to feel entitled to honor what matters to you, especially when that value isn’t necessarily shared by others, or when you’re not moving through the process “perfectly.” To move through the thought of “If I celebrate half-assing it, I’ll reinforce half-assery,” you might think about what you’re reinforcing if you only celebrate 100%-ness. If executing on your goals perfectly is a true value of yours, then go do a bunch of shit you already know how to do and methodically repeat your results. Many people live that way and are very satisfied with their lives. If that doesn’t make you happy, then perhaps you don’t care about superficial perfection as much as you think you do. Perhaps you care more about rising to the challenge of doing something you don’t know how to do.
Celebrating the process (trying) and celebrating the outcome (achieving) aren’t mutually exclusive. You can do both
If you’ve read the book, I’m a Messy, wing Intense, wing Parisian
Loved this--thank you. Metabolizing it all, but I write in my book DRINK about the profound link between perfectionism and women's drinking, excerpted in the Atlantic. Thank you, Holly, for being such an honest writer, thinker, human. Porous and thoughtful, I love your missives. Your fan, Ann
Magic post. Great questions. I woke up despondent: what’s the point; why bother. And then this conversation. It is so encouraging to realise I am recovering and trying and shifting along. I’ll buy the book. You just keep writing!! Love you Holly