Monday, 22 January 2018

Why perfectionism can lead to alcohol addiction

Since I've been posting about my relationship with alcohol and my rationale for breaking up with booze, I have been bowled over by the astoundingly supportive messages I have received from friends and strangers alike.  On Tuesday, a heartfelt message popped up in my email inbox from an old colleague in response to my 'Hope is the only thing stronger than fear' post.  One of her comments really made me think.  She wrote:  "You've always come across as such a confident, self-assured lady - reading your latest blog (and then going back and reading earlier posts) has made me see a very different side to you."   Many of us wear a mask to disguise our weaknesses and vulnerabilities and present a version of ourselves that we want people to see, rather than our true self.  I know that I, in particular, have concealed the real me, especially in a work environment.

Throughout the years when I worked in advertising and marketing, I suffered from imposter syndrome, believing that I was inadequate and a fraud, despite evidence to indicate that I was actually very skilled and successful.  I was a perfectionist, setting excessively high standards for myself and beating myself up when I failed to reach a goal.  I was riddled with self-doubt and worry. I was also a control freak.  This made me terrible at delegating, as I always wanted everything to be done perfectly and my way.  I expected my work to be 100% perfect, 100% of the time.  To my colleagues I must have looked extremely self-assured, confident and on top of everything, but I felt like the elegant gliding swan paddling frantically below the surface.

As I was writing this, I thought to myself, 'Thank God, I'm no longer like that!'  But then I thought back to studying last year and the blog I wrote in November where I talk about striving so hard to achieve a distinction for my DipTESOL that I was suffering from anxiety and panic attacks.  How quickly we forget! To the other people on the course I probably appeared to be over-achieving with consistently high marks, but inside I was wracked with self-doubt and fear that at some point I'd be outed as not being good enough.

This lead me to read up about perfectionism and its impact on our lives.  According to Gnilka, Ashby & Noble (2013) there are two forms of perfectionism: adaptive perfectionism where individuals 'strive towards personal high standards without a crippling self-critical voice when these elevated standards are not met'; and maladaptive perfectionism which 'is associated with extreme self-criticalness and a persistent sense of failure to live up to personal high standards of performance'.  Maladaptive perfectionism has been linked to various psychological outcomes, such as depression, self-esteem and self-confidence.  Rice, Van Arsdale & Amy (2006) go on to highlight how maladaptive perfectionists have significantly higher levels of stress and a tendency to drink to cope. In Rettig's Huffington Post blog about 'Perfectionism And Addiction', she states how perfectionism supports addiction through causing 'persistent feelings of frustration, despair, shame and guilt that an addict might turn to alcohol or some other addictive substance or behavior to soothe'.  I can now see that I have definitely fallen into the maladaptive perfectionist category throughout various chapters of my life and one of my most prevalent uses of alcohol was as a 'soother' and 'stress reliever'.

I know that I focus on presenting the photoshopped version of me to the world and I feel ashamed and embarrassed by my failures.  Maybe some of you can recognise these traits in yourself.  If we all became more comfortable with removing the veneer of perfection,  and embracing (and sharing) our failures as part of a natural learning process on the pathway to success, we could start to make in-roads into leading happier more honest lives with less need to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol.  One of my favourite Nelson Mandela quotes is: “Do not judge me by my successes, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.”  It's time to start applying this to my life and accepting that I will never be perfect.  I need to be less harsh on myself, embrace the real flawed me and keep getting up, dusting myself down and carrying on without beating myself up.

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