The Imperfection of Recovery (Part 1)

I was a child perfectionist. Not your average version of perfection, but a card-carrying, practicing, CEO of childhood perfectionism. If I didn’t understand instructions given to me by my Hebrew teacher, I would have a meltdown. If my t-shirts were not hung up neatly on matching hangers in my closet, I would get anxious. If I didn’t finish everything on my to-do list, I would go into a shame spiral. It wasn’t classic Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), but instead, a version of OCD that acted as a survival strategy.

Because my home was full of chaos, competition and shame, I found refuge in my bedroom and made attempts to keep things in order. Perfectionism helped me cope with my dysfunctional family, but often left me suffering when I couldn’t achieve it—which was 100% of the time. The attempt to control things around me brought me misery, and I had to learn that perfectionism was a myth. Even though it gives the illusion of structure, it only provides temporary relief rather than sustainable healing.

Through years of therapy, twelve-step work and meditation, I’ve learned to take myself a bit less seriously. My perfectionism is not as heavy as it used to be. Yet, it still rears its ugly head when I’m under stress and when I forget to seek emotional nourishment. This may sound counterintuitive, but in order to stay on my healing path, I need to practice imperfection.

Recovery from out-of-control sexual behaviors is a long, winding road. Anyone who tells you otherwise is either lying or in denial. In the “beverage program” some people are able to put the plug in the jug and stay sober, but compulsive sex is another species, which has greater likelihood toward imperfection built into the healing process. Like food and money, sex needs to be integrated into one’s life rather than practicing complete abstinence.

Janet had two years of time on her sexual recovery plan until she lost her job and unexpectedly needed to move out of the apartment she loved. The stress was too much, and she turned to her old ways of porn and masturbation as an attempt to cope with this double whammy. She currently attended two twelve-step meetings each week and worked on the steps weekly with her sponsor. Janet was no stranger to witnessing imperfections in the rooms but this was her first so-called relapse. She told her sponsor what happened and was advised to go to a meeting ASAP and share about her recent stressors. As a result, she received a lot of encouragement to double up on her contact to program and to be compassionate with herself about the “slip.” Initially, Janet felt shame, which slowly turned to relief when others revealed their imperfections.

As a recovering perfectionist, I thought that sexual recovery was going to be a linear progression. This wasn’t my story, and it’s not the story of many others. But I felt tremendous shame and fear if I wasn’t able to adhere firmly to my plan. Unfortunately, I still see profound shame and loneliness in newcomers who face early difficulties.

The final chapter in my book, It’s Not the Mistakes That Count illustrates and celebrates imperfection. I believe that stumbling and fumbling is a growth opportunity unlike any other. Rather than falling into a shame spiral of despair and isolation, can this be an opportunity for curiosity, self-observation and non-judgment? Perfectionism at any stage of recovery is a set-up for brokenheartedness.

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