Perfectionism: How to Kill Your Joy in Sobriety

street sign with arrows - perfect one direction and progress the other - perfectionism“What you think, you become.”

This famous saying is the simple version of a longer quote taken from Buddhist writings:

“Whatever a monk keeps pursuing with his thinking and pondering, that becomes the inclination of his awareness.”

The first version definitely fits better on a T-shirt, but the critical message is the same:

Your mind is powerful.

If you’re feeling stuck, stagnant, or kind of joyless in sobriety, ask yourself if you are a perfectionist.

If so, you may be paralyzed—blind to the best parts of your life.


Alcoholics and addicts are notorious for telling everyone else what their problems are and how to solve them.

We’re a bottomless well of unsolicited advice, with complaints for nearly everyone we come in contact with—the ultimate killjoys with an answer for everyone.

Except, of course, for our own problems.

Instead, we form another ridiculous plan that will keep you off our back, make some empty promises, offer a dozen excuses, perform some slight-of-hand denial, and pack a bag of blame to let other people carry for us…

Everything and everyone is fatally flawed in our eyes. We’re joyless except in our sarcasm. We’re cynical—restless, irritable, and discontent.

No wonder, actually.

For endless days, we’ve been expecting ourselves to do the impossible and beat our disease on our willpower and inner resources alone—to drink normally or quit altogether, and we’re so very disappointed with our inability to do so.

“There is the obsession that somehow, someday, they will beat the game. But they often suspect they are down for the count… How true this is, few realize… At a certain point in the drinking of every alcoholic, he passes into a state where the most powerful desire to stop drinking is of no avail.” — Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 23-24

Lack of power is still our dilemma—an inability to avoid negative feelings.

We criticize others’ perceived failures in order to hide our own—a bitter and corrosive thought pattern that continues long into recovery for too many of us.

Sometimes we’re just hard on everybody. There is zero joy to be found.


Full of free advice, when it comes to actually taking action on our own behalf, we never seem to have the courage it takes.

Not wanting to fail or or be embarrassed, many of us have mastered the perfect excuse that enables us to do nothing:

We have to do everything perfectly.

We label ourselves perfectionists, and we wear that label as a badge of honor.

We pretend it is a strength, but it’s the true root of failure.

We say, “I might screw this up, so I’ll just skip it all together for now.”

We’re always procrastinating, waiting for the perfect conditions to reduce the odds of failure.

In this state of mind, what progress towards something better can we make?


What a joyless existence…


The real problem is that we are delusional.

We aren’t striving for perfection or reaching for the stars.

We’re actually focused on the failures we imagine staring us coldly in the face—all the bad outcomes we might get if we dared to try.

What if it doesn’t work?

What if this or that happens?

What will people say?

Here’s an example for you… Downhill skiing… Don’t look too hard at what you don’t want to hit.

You know the trees on the left and right are there, but if you focus on them, you WILL crash right into them.

What you think, you become. Your mind is powerful.

When we focus on what could go wrong, just that and more usually happens. We wind up with failure—the very thing we were trying so hard to avoid.

Or, we never even take the first step—paralyzed.


The simple, honest question is a trademark of 12 Step life.

Here’s my favorite:

“God either is, or He isn’t. What was our choice to be?” —Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 53

It was my first experience in reducing the most complicated issue in life, the omnipotent existence of God Himself, into the simplest terms I could use to take positive action with.

I deal with my self-imposed perfectionism in much the same way, repeating a simple question my sponsor often asked me:

How often is anything in this world done perfectly?

It’s not.


By anybody.

But, we stubbornly cling to our insistence on perfection anyway.


Because it allows us to avoid the uncomfortable situation altogether.

To avoid (potential) disappointment or embarrassment, we choose never to start in the first place. We use the excuse of not being able to do something perfectly to enable us to do nothing at all.

We just sit on our hands, no progress towards our hopes or dreams.

Perfectionism doesn’t improve us, it binds us in heavy chains and throws us into the river to drown, stagnant and unfulfilled—all because we’re afraid of failure or embarrassment.

What misery…

What you think, you become. Your mind is powerful.


Something that’s read at the beginning of almost every meeting, tens of thousands of times a day worldwide, you probably never took to heart:

Many of us exclaimed, “What an order! I can’t go through with it.” Do not be discouraged. No one among us has been able to maintain anything like perfect adherence to these principles. We are not saints. The point is, that we are willing to grow along spiritual lines. The principles we have set down are guides to progress. We claim spiritual progress rather than spiritual perfection.—Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 60

Nobody attains perfection. Nobody is a saint.

We aspire to grow, and all we claim is progress.

If you want peace in your soul and freedom in your mind, get used to messing things up a little. Get comfortable with a little chaos.

For God’s sake, suck at something new today!

“Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.” — Albert Einstein

Babies crash and burn all the time as they learn to walk on their own, but they’re doing it with an excited and unquenchable thirst for progress and without a single thought of imperfection!

Just like those babies, mistakes are part of learning and growing into a new way of life.

Failures are expected.

The only perfection that exists in the 12 Step life is staying sane and sober today.

The rest… Well…

We just have to do the best we can with God’s guidance. It has always worked out for the best!

Check out the top of pg. 63 if you don’t believe me—a fact of our existence since 1939.

What you think, you become. Your mind is powerful.


When you leave room for the unexpected and loosen your death grip on life and other people, the most amazing things can happen.

Sobriety remains an adventure, but it’s now one worth living. It becomes joyful when we let go of perfectionism and embrace the wholeness of this amazing experience we call life.

Happy Holidays!