How Relapse has Improved My Recovery

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A slip made me realize that I have defined recovery as being perfect rather than improving.

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This post is personal for me.

Last week, I had another junk food binge. Christmas is hell on my recovery for a lot of reasons and for me right now, food is a battleground.

This time, I went almost two weeks without a slip, which is progress for me. It is so easy to see a slip as the end of your self-discipline… rather than just one day in the overall story of your recovery.

Afterwards, I can be so hard on myself. It feels like emotional aftershocks. A fall makes me feel like I want to just give up on everything, abandon my goals and say to hell with it all. I stop exercising, I isolate and I avoid. Other unhealthy behaviors seem to mount an attack. A bad night turns into a bad week. Overdoing it becomes a pattern.

And then my soul is on fire: My depression kicks into high gear and I feel worthless. My shame screams at me. I keep secrets, I feel as though I have nothing to offer and I go into image-management mode. I feel like my soul has become heavy and everyday living loses it’s wonder.

From perfect to perfectionism

It hit me yesterday that I have allowed my recovery to become about perfectionism rather than improvement. My slip changed how I see myself. I am more compassionate, and less focused on being perfect.

It hit me yesterday that I have allowed my recovery to become about perfectionism rather than improvement. My slip changed how I see myself. I am more compassionate, and less focused on being perfect.

What is perfection? It has many definitions:

  • A perfect summer day where you have an outdoor barbeque?
  • A relaxing day with your family?
  • A day all to yourself to read, nap and be lazy?
  • A productive day at work where you accomplish all that you intended to do?
  • A beautiful painting that captures the essence of a scene better than reality?

However you define it, perfection is a rare occurrence. It seems to happen whenever life lines up just right. By definition, perfection is occasional. It is special because it is rare.

Now consider perfectionism.

The dictionary defines perfectionism as a refusal to accept anything short of perfection. It also conveys the expectation that moral, spiritual, or social perfection should occur.

The two faces of perfectionism

For some people, perfectionism can inspire them to live and to work in a way that brings out their best. They accept the less-than-perfect and continue working towards improvement. For other people, perfectionism can drive their inflexible expectations and they accept nothing less. They are driven, difficult on themselves and those they live with or work with.

Some people attach their sense of self worth to being perfect: perfect body, perfect hair, perfect cook, perfect musician, perfect writer, perfect execution of a project or task. Perfect can be alluring. It can drive us to present only our best, and push away our other less-than-perfect selves.

Perfectionism and recovery

Perfectionism can destroy our recovery. In fact, perfectionism is opposite to our recovery. Recovery is about unlearning, learning, and then re-learning. And learning is never perfect.

Perfectionism can destroy our recovery. In fact, perfectionism is opposite to our recovery. Recovery is about unlearning, learning, and then re-learning. And learning is never perfect.

Making the next healthy decision frees you from having to fret about decisions that you haven’t yet made… and may never make. In my recovery, I get so far and then either I slip or I fall squarely on my face. You would think that my face would evolve down to the bottoms of my feet. My falls would feel a little easier that way.

But that’s not how we are designed. Our faces are a long way from the ground and most of us don’t take kindly to falling face-first.

Sometimes you can’t make the next healthy decision. It can feel too difficult to make the right decision. So why try? Maybe for you, you just need give up on “healthy” or “right” because it can feel like another version of “perfect.”

Maybe you just need to do the thing that is next to healthy for you… one step towards health is better than a step away from it.

Let me give you an example. Healthy may be to go for a walk or exercise. Or it may be to abstain from alcohol. Or it may be to avoid reaching for the chips and grab an apple instead. Sometimes these decisions may feel too daunting. You may fall every time that you try to take a step.

Instead, do the thing that is next to healthy. Instead of recommitting to a new exercise program, just go outside. Instead of committing to a life without alcohol, just leave it until tomorrow. Instead of avoiding the lure of the full bag of chips, let the chips wait for now.

Health and growth is not about changing our lives. Health is made of small decisions to better ourselves. Sometimes we fall, sometimes we slip. A fall is only devastating if we end our commitment to our recovery.

Self compassion

Acceptance is the cornerstone of recovery. Taking a hard look at our imperfections can feel especially hard some days. On these days, you and I need to practice self-compassion. If you are like me, the last thing you will feel like doing is being compassionate towards yourself. You want to be hard on yourself because that is the only way to change, right?

Studies have shown that shame can lead you to be more at risk to relapse. Self compassion is the gift of acceptance that you have more to learn. It is freeing yourself from judgment. Self judgment is a lot like unforgiveness. It can feel like it is the right thing to do, but you end up being anchored to a moment. You are not free, but you are bound to the past and you are hard on yourself.

The lesson I have learned is that the harder you are on yourself, the less you are able to learn from a misstep or from a lapse.

The lesson I have learned is that the harder you are on yourself, the less you are able to learn from a misstep or from a lapse.

Like I said at the beginning of this post, this one is personal. After the dust settles for me, I have to be honest. I can be really hard on myself and that puts even more barriers in the way of my recovery. Self compassion is the last thing that I want to do, but it is exactly what I need.

It takes courage to love ourselves. Today, take the leap and love yourself.

You need to learn to love yourself while also holding onto the truth that you have done some pretty embarrassing things. You may even think of yourself as awful, unlovable or worthless.

If you enjoyed this article, you will want to read some of my other writing:

Are You Brave Enough to Love Yourself?

To Heal, You Must Become the Art

Addiction, A Simple Path

I write articles about wellness, leadership, parenting and personal growth. My hope is to deliver the best content I can to inspire, to inform and to entertain. Sign up for my blog if you want to receive the latest and best of my writing. If you like what I have to say, please share my work with your friends.

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