“No one among us has been able to maintain anything like perfect adherence to these principles,” the authors of Alcoholics Anonymous explain after listing the 12 steps. “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.”
“Progress not perfection” is a popular term in the world of recovery where people are striving every day to better themselves from a problem which has created complications in their life. For those in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction, progress not perfection is an elaboration of another familiar sentiment: one day at a time. Humans cannot be expected to be perfect. Those in recovery who are working the twelve step program are developing awareness regarding their character defects and personal flaws- that is, the parts of their humanity which make them less than perfect. Often, addicts and alcoholics in recovery will fall under the belief that confronting these character “defects” and working to overcome them necessitates perfection. In order to avoid being controlled by the subconscious elements of their character, which could contribute to relapse, they feel they have to be perfect. It’s an unrealistic and damaging belief, which is why the authors, immediately after listing the expectations of the steps, assert that the process isn’t about perfection. The process is about progress.
Mistakes are necessary. Without mistakes, there is no gaining wisdom. It is the mistakes we make and the lessons we learn from them which make us smarter, wiser, and more resilient beings. If we “skip the struggle” as it is sometimes said in recovery, we skip the valuable lessons which were waiting for us in that struggle. Progress not perfection takes a burden off of our backs in recovery and frees us to move at a pace that is comfortable. High expectations can create devastating disappointments, which, for an addict or alcoholic whose brain has been rewired for pleasure, could be triggering.
There is no doing recovery “perfectly” or doing recovery all at once. Like all things in life, recovery is a journey, not a destination. Sobriety, the abstinence from all mind altering substances, is a daily destination and the only thing that has to be done “perfectly”. To not pick up and use a drink every day is perfection. Everything else is progress.
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Page last reviewed and medically fact-checked | August 17, 2017