Progress, Not Perfection

Photo by Hayley Seibel / Unsplash

In my twenty-seven years in recovery and throughout my time in a 12 Step group, I have been struck by the number of different axioms I have heard. Axioms like:

  • One day at a time
  • Fake it till you make it
  • The program works if you work it

These statements have provided me with themes that have helped me stay focused on my recovery and what they can do to support this.

None of these axioms have proved as valuable to me as the one I have chosen for this article: Progress, not Perfection. I believe we live in a society which continually is putting forth strong expectations and messages about how to be and how to act to be successful, to be wealthy, to be loved – to name a few. These powerful messages come from everywhere and especially from the media – TV shows and commercials – as well as the ongoing messages on social messages. We are bombarded by messages. These messages dictate the “perfect” – size, shape, career, what to eat, as well as the medications to take to be happy and accepted. Very often, our addictions have been triggered by these messages of perfection as well as denying our very imperfections. And IMPERFECT is really who each of us is! This is why that I find Progress, not Perfection so important to remember and seek to practice.

My reflections on this were stimulated by a book that was written in 2010 by one of my favorite authors, Brene Brown. This book is entitled The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are (Hazelden, Center City MN, 2010). This title says it all as well as challenges us to let go of perfection and embrace and be-friend our imperfections.

In this regard, I think that Churches of all denominations have fed into our desire to be perfect and struggling to accept our imperfections. I was raised in the Roman Catholic Church and continue to be a member after these many years. As I look back upon growing up Catholic, there was an emphasis on doing things perfectly, and when we “sinned” – made mistakes and errors – there were often strong feelings of guilt and shame, which would lead to hiding what we did. For many of us, this is where denial entered the picture.

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I have found that sharing my imperfections creates compassion.I see another aspect of this emphasis on perfection today arising from living in a society that has become increasingly competitive and polarized. There seems to be ONE goal – to WIN – to make the most money, to live in the biggest house etc. If we are not able to win these prizes – like most of us – we are saddled with feelings of being “less than”, being a loser and outlier. This then leads us to hide our imperfections because we know we are not perfect.

What if – in Brene’s terms – we learned to see, prize, and accept our imperfections as gifts? As reasons to celebrate, not to hide. Wouldn’t that take a huge load off our shoulders?

My 12 Step group meeting has been a place and a group of people where I have slowly learned over the years to be able to share my imperfections and still be accepted by them. I emphasize “continuing to learn” because it has been a long process of trusting that I could share these imperfections and still find acceptance. No one is preaching a gospel of perfection! I have learned that it is OK and even important to share my imperfections as a way to connect with others who are often experiencing similar imperfections. I have found that sharing my imperfections creates compassion. I have also found that in sharing my imperfections in the meetings has allowed me to share with some – not everyone – outside of a meeting. Such vulnerability is important today in creating a society that is a bit more humane. And this starts with each of us.

One other learning experience that has come to me in sharing my imperfections is developing more of a curiosity about what I am doing and thinking about. This leads me to thinking more how I might progress and not remain stuck in addictive patterns and behaviors. Progress we can achieve; perfection we cannot! So, I remain curious as to how I can become a better listener and less judgmental, how I can use my gifts in service of others (Step 12), and how I can become more patient with myself and others.

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So, in stressing progress, not perfection, I would ask you to consider how you might progress and let go of the impossible goal of perfection. I hope you also have places and people where you feel comfortable sharing your imperfections. Sharing our imperfections with others and being accepted keeps us in humanity as well as being a contributing member. My best to you!

Mark T. Scannell is a veteran 12 Stepper who believes that communities or Villages are essential in helping people recover from our addictions. His most recent book – The Village It Takes: The Power To Affirm – explores this theme.

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Last Updated on March 9, 2023

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