Dear Dr. Hurd,
I am an adjunct instructor and just finished teaching a short course “Perfectionism in addictive behaviors.” After reading your recent blog post “You can’t be too perfect” I am wondering if you would agree that maladaptive perfection could lead to destructive addictions, like alcohol, drugs, food and maybe others as well? I have been in contact with researchers on the subject and their belief is that there is not enough specific research yet to narrow this claim.
Dr. Hurd replies:
Can perfectionism cause addiction? I absolutely think so. I maintain that self-defeating or self-destructive behaviors are the consequence of contradictory or self-defeating, false beliefs. Perfectionism does not always or only lead to destructive addictions, but it certainly can do so. This is because
perfectionism is a phrase which refers to a set of false beliefs, including but not limited to the following:
“It’s always bad to be wrong. Errors are disasters.”
“Errors make me look foolish in front of others, and that’s a catastrophe.”
“Life should be easy and comfortable. Any departure from this status is a disaster.”
“Knowledge should be automatic. If I can’t make it so, then I’ll pretend it to be so.”
“If I don’t know everything all at once, then I don’t know anything.”
With underlying thoughts or ideas such as these, anybody would want to abuse alcohol or drugs — or do something else, whatever feels good, to attain a state of serenity and rationality undercut by these faulty ways of thinking.
It’s commonly assumed that perfectionists are people who strive for excellence. “They are trying to be excellent. They go a little overboard, but their intentions are good.” Or, “I’m proud to be a perfectionist. It means I do things right.”
It’s not necessarily so.
One of the false beliefs underlying perfectionism is the notion that everything should be effortless and easy. In all frankness, this is what often motivates perfectionism. It’s not excellence that the perfectionist wants, so much as comfort and ease. There’s an old saying about a person who “wants a champagne lifestyle on a beer budget.” (Does this sound like America, or what?) If you take this saying and extend it to not just budgets, but all of life, then you have the mentality of at least some perfectionists. “I want things to be fabulous and beautiful.” But it’s not so easy. When confronted with the reality that it’s not so easy to attain even rational excellence, this kind of perfectionist becomes angry, chronically frustrated and irritable. In such a state of mind, it’s not surprising to see drug addiction, alcohol addiction or other serious problems develop.
The thing that substance abusers typically lack is a reality orientation. A reality orientation is what allows you to aim high, while still keeping your metaphorical feet on the ground. Some perfectionists want the high part all right, but not the ground part. Consequently, they aim for artificial highs to deliver what of course they cannot realistically gain that way. This is why alcoholics and other addicts are often known as fabulous, even brilliant people prior to their addictions taking hold. They genuinely aimed high and wanted great things out of life … but went about it in a way that undercuts or evades a reality orientation. They aim for the stars but pay no attention whatsoever to the ground.
I’d love to see researchers in psychology and addiction put what I’m claiming to the test. Most research to date takes it for granted that alcoholism and drug addiction are simply medical diseases. Neither free will nor psychology have anything to do with addiction, according to prevalent assumptions today. Then there’s AA, which focuses on the role of the undefined and indefinable Higher Power. This tends to make study of faulty beliefs irrelevant to research as we know it. This is a shame, because the lack of research which asks the right questions may be the primary reason why medical science and psychology still understand so little about addiction.