Progress Not Perfection

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In the 4th Edition of Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How Many Thousands of Men and Women Have Recovered from Alcoholism– also known as The Big Book – there is a phrase which has captured both my interest and imagination around issues of recovery for many years: “We claim spiritual progress, not spiritual perfection.” Often that phrase is shortened to simply, “Progress, not perfection,” which is the focus of this article.

I believe what is said about people recovering from alcohol is true about recovery, whatever a person’s addiction might be. In this article, I would like to share my reflections on this phrase, which I have found to be an important aspect of my recovery. One other note: When I speak of “we” for addicts, I am including myself as a recovering addict.

Before beginning to reflect on this phrase, I want to bring into the discussion a book written by Ann Wilson Schaef in 1987 entitled When Society Becomes an Addict (Harper and Rowe: San Francisco, 1987). I have always found this to be a foundational book for understanding addiction and recovery. I believe that Schaef is right: We live in a society that is addicted in many different ways. To name a few of these addictions: Having to win, having more than others, making more money, how we look. One of the repercussions of this is that there is often little support in our society today to think and act non-addictively. In fact, there are often incentives and support to continue our addictive ways and thinking.

As I was thinking about “Progress, not perfection,” a saying came back to me that seems to state a similar theme. This was: “It’s not whether you win or lose; it’s how you play the game.” Since I didn’t know the source of this quote, I consulted Wikipedia and discovered a famous sports’ writer as the source, and his name is Grantland Rice. Since he died in 1954, I wonder whether he would recognize professional sports as it has continued to evolve since his death. The emphasis has shifted really to the opposite of his quote: Winning has become the most important part of playing games and living these days, whether it be individuals playing individuals, teams playing other teams, or people just trying to live. I sense that Rice’s quote is very much in keeping with the phrase “Progress, not perfection.”

This emphasis on wining and competing contributes to a society that – according to Ann Wilson Schaef – is addictive. So, I would like to suggest a question for us to consider: How are we playing the game of life? Are we being seduced by trying to win most of the time and achieve some sort of perfection? Are we willing to back away from trying to win and be perfect, and instead try to grow and progress day by day?

In reflecting on this theme, I don’t want to underestimate the many challenges facing us today. Some of these challenges are the impact of Covid on everyone, children facing pressures to adjust to changing ways of attending school, rising prices for essentials for living, polarizing divisions within our society, and challenges facing aging people like me. These are definitely very challenging times in which we live.

I want to consider some aspects as I have tried to adopt a lifestyle in recovery that places more emphasis on progress. The first of these is the impact of isolation on us. I believe addiction flourishes in isolation, while recovery flourishes in community. This means needing to find people – partners, friends, sponsors, recovery groups and supportive groups of all kinds – who support us as we seek to deal with the challenges life sends our way. I also see support as a two-way street which means that we are also able to offer support to others. I take seriously John Donne’s thought (which I changed to more inclusive language) that “No one is an island.” We need others to remind us of what our goals and values are – like pursuing progress – as it is easy to forget what is important in the face of so much going on in our lives. We need reminders, and we can also help others by being reminders to them. Are there communities in your life to which you belong that support you? A community can be one other person beside us. We don’t need huge numbers of people; we need supportive people.

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Giving thanks can help us begin to release shame, regrets, and resentments.Secondly, I believe that perfection doesn’t exist in this life – life is a continual mix of successes and failure. We are not going to win every contest in our lives. We make mistakes, make wrong turns, lose our way, and meet people who are stronger and smarter than we are. That is the nature of life! I remember attending Notre Dame as a freshman many years ago. I was not a high caliber athlete in high school. My roommate, however, was a very good swimmer in high school. He had a very difficult time when he didn’t make the swimming team. He competed against swimmers that were better than he was. That example says to me – whatever we are engaging in – to keep ourselves trying to focus on progress. We do need people we trust and can confide in and with whom we can share our struggles as well as our defeats. This aspect speaks to me of being realistic about who we are and what we are capable of doing. That is certainly one of the lessons life teaches us as we age: What we might have been able to do earlier, we are unable to do so now. I am finding this out now as I age and need to make adjustments.

Thirdly, the shift to a progress mentality can be facilitated by seeking to set manageable goals. The beauty of manageable goals is that – by and large – they are reachable. If we set goals that in some ways are always about succeeding big time and we fail to reach them, we run the risk of falling into shame – that often-debilitating sense that we are not good enough. Manageable goals when reached release good hormones in our brains – like dopamine – and provide a sense of success. This can then help us in reaching other goals that we set. I believe the experience of success in some undertaking can help us in other undertakings as we have more confidence because of what we are able to accomplish. As we set and seek to accomplish goals – even failing to meet goals – can provide an openness to learn from what happened or didn’t happen.

One method that has been helpful to me in terms of setting manageable goals is keeping a To-Do list or a vision board of things that I wish to do. I realize such methods do not work for everyone. I have found it helpful to jot down what I want to do – to make it visible and get the tasks out of my brain and onto the page. These lists keep me focused on what I want to do, and I feel good energy when I am able to cross off something I did. Something like a To-Do list or a vision board, as well as people with whom we can be accountable, are some ways which I have learned to set and reach manageable goals. Do you have a strategy that helps you accomplish the things you want to accomplish? If you don’t, I hope you can find one.

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The fourth and last aspect is looking for ways to express gratitude. I think it can be easy for us as addicts to get triggered and to experience relapses from which can often come more shame. We can also experience regrets and resentments when we see again that we are not perfect and never will be perfect. I have found an antidote to those feelings: It is finding things that we are grateful for in our lives. Giving thanks can help us begin to release shame, regrets, and resentments. Research shows that people – even young people – who develop a regular practice of expressing gratitude are happier people. I address more about this in a book I wrote earlier: The Gratitude Element: A New Look at the Serenity Prayer (Gasscann Publishers, Minneapolis: 2015). Basically, when we ask for things, it is good to give thanks for what we have been given. Giving thanks focuses on what we have done, not what we haven’t done; what we have achieved, not what we haven’t. We are not perfect, and we can still be grateful!

This article has discussed different ways of seeking to progress in our lives: Belonging to communities where we can both give and receive support; acknowledging imperfections, not perfection, as the normal situation of humanity; setting manageable goals; and developing a practice of regularly giving thanks. I believe that these practices offer ways to shift our thinking and moving away from trying to be perfect and seeing that progress is a more helpful in our recovery. They give us a way to focus on the game we are playing and not get getting lost in counting the wins and losses of our lives. I wish you well and I hope that you will experience and see the progress that you are making. I urge you to find people who will remind you that you don’t have to be perfect to be a loving, contributing, and caring human being.

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 16, 2023

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