Recently, a newly sober friend came to talk to me about her frustrations with recovery. Despite her deep desire to be sober, she felt like she wasn’t getting “it,” and that “real” recovery was somehow out of her reach. I asked what she thinks it looks like to be in recovery.
“Real recovery,” she said, “means always being happy, never making mistakes, sharing profound wisdom in meetings, and immediately getting rid of any defects of character.”
As I listened, my mind scanned through dozens of friends in recovery. I’m 99% sure that none of them, regardless of their length of sobriety, would ever claim to fit this friend’s standards for a recovered life. No wonder she felt that recovery was unattainable—at the end of the day, she associated recovery with perfection. And as anybody who has ever sat in a 12-step room knows, a life of recovery does not equal the impossible idea of perfection.
While we may know in theory that recovery doesn’t include perfection, many of us still live by that unspoken expectation. We can become harsh self-critics if we don’t say or do the right thing at the right time in the right way. We compare ourselves to those who appear to have healed relationships or those with good jobs or people who can quote the big book with page numbers.
Some of our drive for perfection might come from a sincere desire to behave differently than we did in the past, but often, we aim for perfection out of deep fear: the fear that we aren’t good enough, the fear that we will be rejected if we are misunderstood, or the fear that mistakes translate into an inability to have long-term sobriety.
Striving for perfection is an act of self-reliance. It’s an attempt to control our fears and feelings with the false belief that if we behave well enough, we can avoid pain and loss. But mistakes, challenges, pain, and loss are inevitable, and unrealistic expectations of our behavior only lead to guilt, self-judgment and shame.
In truth, recovery is the PROCESS of learning how to be sober, healthy, honest and present. And for better or worse, most of us learn through failures, difficulties or dead-ends more than we do by hitting home runs.
Instead of exhausting ourselves in attempts to avoid failure, we can direct our energy toward enjoying health and freedom by learning a new way of living.
This life of recovery has a significant learning curve for those of us who spent our entire lives trying to change the way we feel. It takes time to untangle the negative self-talk, the addictive patterns and the practice of self-reliance. There is no expectation that we will be Captain Maturity who never faces self-pity or fear. Instead, we learn through practicing honesty and surrender.
God as we understand God does not demand perfection. Instead, our higher power wants us to embrace the journey. Deep change comes as we learn how to face reality, and reality requires us to own our failures and allow mistakes to be our teachers along the journey.
Mistakes can be as much a part of our growth as meetings. Failures can teach us as much as conversations with others in the program. Releasing ourselves from unrealistic expectations allows us to be open to the Divine Love that calls us away from control and self-reliance and reminds us that recovery is about growing, not arriving.
On the true path of recovery, we learn to own our weaknesses and let go of control. It is this spiritual practice that brings light to our journey and allows us to embrace that we are lovable even in our imperfections.
-Chris Gibson, MDiv