What Does “Progress Not Perfection” Actually Look Like in AA?

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) provides a variety of techniques, resources, and literature to promote recovery from alcohol addiction.1 One hallmark of the fellowship is its mantras and phrases, the many AA sayings used to promote a recovery-oriented lifestyle.2 One phrase that many people associate with AA emphasizes “progress not perfection” in substance use recovery. This process-oriented mindset can improve a person’s motivation, outlook, and commitment to long-term recovery from alcohol addiction.

The “Progress Not Perfection” AA Saying

The fourth edition of Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How Many Thousands of Men and Women Have Recovered from Alcoholism, also known as the Big Book, describes principles that the founders of AA used to overcome addiction to alcohol by remaining committed to the established program and 12-step process.2 In the chapter titled “How it Works,” The Big Book states the following:

“No one among us has been able to maintain anything like perfect adherence to these principles [of Alcoholics Anonymous]… We claim spiritual progress, not spiritual perfection.”

The phrase “progress not perfection” is a shortened version of this original quote.2 In the context of AA, “progress not perfection” refers to a person’s courage, willingness, and commitment to the process of growth in recovery from alcohol addiction.

The Role of a Higher Power

AA offers participants guidance in fortifying a relationship with their higher power. According to AA, the practice of building a spiritual connection to God can strengthen a person’s commitment to sobriety.

Sometimes, people become concerned with AA’s definition of God, a higher power, and spirituality.1 In reality, AA encourages members to explore spirituality and higher power from their own perspective. This approach allows you to choose what your relationship with a higher power means.

In discussing how AA works, the Big Book refers to the challenge of “self-will” in overcoming addiction.2 This specific challenge in recovery comes from “self-propulsion” without the support of a higher power.2 The theory presented by AA suggests that people’s self-directed efforts to overcome alcohol addiction will create an ideal that causes conflict, both inside and out. According to Step 3 of the 12 Steps, you can confront these conflicts by making “a decision to turn [your] will and [your life] over to the care of [your higher power].”3

The Big Book reports that “each person is like an actor who wants to run the whole show” of their lives.2 It suggests that people’s selfishness, especially in addiction, represents unrealistic efforts to control themselves, others, and life in general. The Big Book instructs readers to “quit playing God” and acknowledge their need for support from “a power greater than” themselves.This idea is sometimes encompassed in the AA saying: “let go and let God.”

With regards to perfection, the Big Book states that many people recovering from alcohol addiction had “moral and philosophical convictions” that they could not live up to.2 AA suggests that recovery can begin by letting go of this effort to live in perfect adherence to one’s ideals. Instead, one can progress in maintaining sobriety by focusing on maintaining honesty, spirituality, and growing a relationship with their higher power.

After a person has acknowledged their need for, and become willing to form, a relationship with a higher power, they can continue to make progress through the 12 Steps of AA.2

“Progress” in Alcoholics Anonymous

In AA’s “Frequently Asked Questions” pamphlet, the the importance of connecting with others while walking the path to recovery is emphasized.4 While the creators of the literature acknowledge that some people have read the Big Book and stopped drinking on their own, they also suggest that most people will seek out connections with other members. The fellowship of AA can help members maintain sobriety through supportive relationships.

The community of mutual support offered by AA offers a unique resource in managing the effects of alcohol addiction.1 Sharing in meetings, obtaining a sponsor, and expressing yourself with others can help you recognize what you need to recover from addiction.4

Full engagement in the AA process means acknowledging one’s vulnerability, imperfections, and how common alcohol relapse is for individuals in recovery—and that you are not immune from that risk.4

Exposure to other people’s experiences, successes, and struggles in maintaining sobriety can serve as a guide to one’s own recovery process. By learning from other’s mistakes and achievements, you can gain a sense of understanding for your own experience of addiction. You can also adopt or reject tools that you learn from others in the sharing process.

Accepting Vulnerability

One tool that emphasizes the importance of daily progress versus total perfection comes from “the 24-hour plan.” 5 This plan helps participants in AA to take their progress in recovery “one day at a time.”5

Instead of committing to “never drink again,” people who engage in AA can acknowledge their desire to drink and focus on staying sober for the next 24 hours.

By reflecting openly on urges and cravings for alcohol, participants in AA practice accepting their vulnerability in recovery.5 Participants who engage in this exercise benefit from acknowledging the potential risk of “slipping” back into alcohol use.

By acknowledging the presence of vulnerability to addiction, participants in AA can do as Step 3 suggests by turning their ‘will’ and ‘lives’ over to their higher power as they embark upon the 12 Steps.1, 3

12 Steps to Progress

For people seeking to maintain sobriety by completing the 12 Steps in AA, recovery may seem like an end goal that one must achieve. However, addiction treatment professionals and “old-timers” in AA describe recovery as an ongoing process, one that can last a lifetime.1, 5

Though you may feel tempted to compare your progress in recovery to another’s, the AA program encourages you to develop an approach to maintaining sobriety that works for you.1, 4 Despite the vast differences in people’s lives and individual journeys in recovery, the 12 Steps can offer a framework to help you maintain sobriety.2

Step 4 instructs members to conduct “a searching and fearless moral inventory of themselves.”3 This step prepares members to examine their “shortcomings” and “defects of character.2 After acknowledging the harms they have caused others, members can work towards Step 9, where they endeavor to make “direct amends” where possible. 3

Step 10 of the 12 Steps prompts members of AA to “promptly admit” when they are wrong and take steps to correct their actions.3 This process calls on members to recognize their imperfections to maintain sobriety.

Unlearning “Perfection” in Recovery

Thinking styles that center around perfection may lead to perfectionism. The “personally demanding, rigid standards” that characterize dysfunctional perfectionism can dominate your life and lead to negative consequences, such as avoidant behavior.6 This desire to become perfect can create a paradox where your attempts to be perfect undermine your intended progress.6

Imagine how perfectionism might impact your efforts at recovery. Perfectionism can: 6

  • Lead to putting off uncomfortable but necessary tasks or processes, especially when you fear that you will not successfully complete them or will not be good at them. For example, you may not share in AA meetings to avoid potential missteps in how you speak or what you share.
  • Intensify painful feelings, especially those associated with disappointment, guilt or shame. These intense emotional experiences may even cause depressive symptoms that make it more difficult to move forward in your recover.
  • Perpetuate unhelpful and self-critical thoughts. While acknowledging personal responsibility for one’s actions is an important part of recovery, replaying small mistakes, obsessing about perceived character flaws, or other self-critical cognitive distortions, such as labeling, can make it difficult to change the patterns of behavior associated with those thoughts. If for example, you experience labeling of yourself as undeserving of recovery, this creates an added layer of difficulty in motivating yourself to attempt and in completing recovery-focused tasks.
  • Make it more difficult to recognize, acknowledge, and celebrate your successes. This challenge can, in turn, make it more difficult to take on future challenges because you don’t have remember past successes to look back on proudly even though they exist.

Alcohol addiction recovery alone can present a host of challenges. Adding perfectionism to the mix can complicate the recovery process. Consider the ways that attention to progress can help you avoid the pitfall of striving for perfection in recovery.

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Overcoming Perfectionism

By introducing new ways of thinking with mantras such as “progress not perfection,” AA prompts members to reevaluate the way they connect with themselves and others.2 By exploring complex or negative feelings you have, such as resentment toward others, you might begin to see things you would like to change in yourself.

In the moral inventory of Step 4, members acknowledge the healing they need to do to maintain sobriety through AA. 3 Members can begin to view their own harmful actions as potential areas for growth and recovery. When members reevaluate the resentments they have toward others, they can begin to let go of anger and find different ways of approaching conflict, one guided by a spirit of recovery.2 The Big Book suggests that your relationship with your higher power can foster a kind and tolerant approach to resentment.

Replacing rigid or perfectionist expectations with a more flexible and understanding perspective can help you overcome the harmful “paradox of perfectionism.”7 Greater flexibility and compassion can improve your sense of self-worth, increase your sense of well-being, and promote your recovery in areas of life beyond alcohol addiction.

“Progress Not Perfection” in Alcohol Addiction Treatment

Attempts to overcome alcohol addiction can create an ongoing process of recovery marked by periods of sobriety and alcohol use.1 In AA, participants are encouraged to achieve and maintain complete abstinence from alcohol and all other substance use. Though AA does not demand perfection in this effort, some people prefer to make harm reduction their goal in recovery instead of abstinence.

A harm reduction approach encourages individuals to reduce their alcohol use to improve their health or to remain abstinent from alcohol but not necessarily from other legal mind-altering substances. Understanding your personal needs can help you define progress, not perfection, in recovery from alcohol addiction. An addictions counselor or specializing therapist can assist in making decisions about abstinence and harm reduction.

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AA offers one avenue of peer support in recovery from alcohol addiction. People who want to reduce, not eliminate, alcohol use may find help from other types of support groups.1 Furthermore, some groups take a secular approach to recovery, serving people who would prefer to remove conversations about spirituality from the recovery process.

Other mutual help, peer-led support groups include:1

  • Self-Management and Recovery Training (SMART)—SMART is an abstinence-focused secular peer support group founded on the principles of cognitive-behavioral therapy.
  • Harm Reduction, Abstinence, and Moderation Support (HAMS)—HAMS supports all definitions of recovery, including strict abstinence and harm reduction, from a nonreligious, peer-led perspective. Some addiction mental health professionals specialize in HAMS philosophy.
  • Celebrate Recovery (CR)—CR is a 12-step Christian peer support group that also uses the Biblical Beatitudes to address not just addiction, but all “hurts, habits, and hang-ups.”
  • LifeRing Secular Recovery—LifeRing is an abstinence-based peer support program designed around personal empowerment rather than the focus on a higher power. LifeRing supports individuals, as well as their friends and loved ones.
  • Secular Organizations for Sobriety (SOS)—Sometimes known as “Save Our Selves,” SOS is a nonreligious, sobriety-focused peer-led program.

Trained professionals working in substance use treatment programs can offer evidence-based interventions to help you manage the effects of addiction, including helping to connect you with peer support groups in your community. They can guide you through the process of making progress in managing alcohol use.

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Resources

  1. Miller, W. R., Forcehimes, A. A., & Zweben, A. (2019). Treating addiction: a guide for professionals, 2nd ed. The Guilford Press.
  2. Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc. (2001). Alcoholics Anonymous: This is the fourth edition of the Big Book, the basic text for Alcoholics Anonymous.
  3. Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc. (2017). Twelve steps and twelve traditions.
  4. Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc. (2018) Frequently asked questions about A.A.
  5. Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc. (2018) This is A.A.
  6. Kothari, R., Egan, S., Wade, T., Andersson, G., & Shafran, R. (2016). Overcoming perfectionism: protocol of a randomized controlled trial of an internet-based guided self-help cognitive behavioral therapy intervention. JMIR Research Protocols, 5(4), e215.
  7. Centre for Clinical Interventions. (2021). Perfectionism self-help resources – information sheets & workbooks. Government of Western Australia.

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