For many people who sign up to Daybreak, there can be a very clear process of change that might have started even before they post on the feed or start a coaching conversation. Most of the time this has resulted from some kind of realisation or decision that alcohol is starting to take away more than it is giving – it is becoming a ‘cost’ in a person’s life, rather than something beneficial.
For some of our members, this change process can be relatively quick and straightforward. For others, it can take months or even years. One common issue that pops up for a lot of members is that of perfectionism – high personal standards that, while positive in some ways, can also act as huge barriers towards sustainable change.
This is particularly tricky with alcohol use, as many perfectionists will also be using alcohol problematically – probably because it dampens down anxiety and stress, which are commonly associated with perfectionism. For many people the task of approaching their alcohol use and relationship with alcohol can actually feed into some of that perfectionist thinking – ‘I have to fix this, I need to be 100% perfect with my relationship with alcohol, and if I slip up it means I’ve failed and might as well go all out while I have the chance.’
This kind of thinking can be hugely difficult to manage since, as we know, the process of change does involve some occasional setbacks, moments of failure and disappointment. What matters is the progress over time, and this can take weeks or months – but for a person with perfectionist tendencies this can be hugely challenging. Often we can see ‘all-or-nothing thinking’, where a person will be going very well for a few weeks, but then have a slip-up where they drink more than they had intended to, or slip back slightly in terms of their health and wellbeing goals (e.g. missing the gym, pigging-out on junk food). The feelings of failure and shame can be so overwhelming that what might have just been a lapse or slow-down in progress can become a fully blown relapse, complete with low mood and feelings of worthlessness and shame.
Realistically, we know that life happens – we get sick, we get stressed or others let us down – and there are some times that we just can’t be our best selves. What matters is our progress over the weeks and months, rather than hours or days, but sometimes this can be hard to understand in the moment, particularly if you are a bit of a perfectionist. For some people, the need to be perfect – or never make mistakes – can be tied-up with feeling worthy of love and acknowledgement, so those moments of imperfection can bring up huge feelings of vulnerability and fear.
So what is the solution to this issue? For some people it can involve understanding where these tendencies come from (hint: often these kinds of things are learned in childhood, from parents who wanted the very best for their kids, or were perfectionists themselves), and understanding that while having high standards is great, if we have a bad day it does not mean we are failures or worthless – it simply means we are human, and we are trying the best we can.
Self-Compassion, a relatively new approach, encourages us to shift our self-talk away from criticism and self-blame, towards how we might talk to a friend or loved one, in a way that is practical and understanding, realistic and supportive. This is what we need in those moments of imperfection – not criticism or punitiveness, but rather some gentle support and curiosity about what went wrong, and what we might do differently next time. This allows us to see these ‘failures’ more as learning experiences, and we are then able to hold ourselves accountable for the next time this happens.
Strangely enough, many people who have tackled perfectionism using Self-Compassion have found that rather than what they feared – that their performance or progress would slow if they were a bit easier on themselves – they actually became more productive, more successful, and happier in general. Backing ourselves rather than blaming ourselves gives us a lot of extra space to learn from our mistakes, and plan how we might do things differently next time. Rather than running away from ‘failure’, you might view it more as moving towards success or change, and anticipate that there are going to be some bumps in the road – some that are in your control, others that are not.
If you feel that this might be related to your own experiences, it might be helpful to discuss this with a health coach at Daybreak. We can provide you with some advice and support about how to best manage high standards, self-doubt and perfectionism, and make ongoing and sustainable progress with your relationship with alcohol.