How Addicts Think

Have you ever tried to reason with an alcoholic or addict? If so, you probably have first-hand experience with the faulty logic and inappropriate justifications that they use to help themselves rationalize and feel more comfortable with their behavior. What you may not understand is that they have, most likely, fallen into any number of negative thought patterns that, after having relied on them for months or even years, seem perfectly reasonable to the addict.

Many rehab programs incorporate cognitive behavioral therapy, which makes addicts aware of their cognitive distortions and teaches them how to counter these negative, self-destructive thoughts with positive ones. While addicts are ultimately responsible for their choices, understanding these potential cognitive distortions can give an outsider some insight into an addict’s often tormented world. These distortions, in combination with addiction and other traumatic life experiences, deflate an addict’s self-esteem and feelings of self-worth. Please note that anyone - not just addicts - may employ these distortions. However, addicts often exhibit signs of some of these negative, usually unrealistic, and frequently highly inaccurate, ways of thinking and negotiating reality.

1. Emotional Reasoning: "I feel it, therefore it is so." This type of reasoning is primarily based on gut feeling or can be a result of having used other faulty reasoning to lead to a certain feeling. "I feel like a failure; therefore, I am a failure." The sad irony is that negative thoughts often produce negative emotions, which can snowball into a destructive downward spiral as they feed off each other.

2. Should Statements: "I should get help for my problem." As long as an addict has the above should statement in their head, they probably will not seek treatment. When should statements are directed toward oneself, and when the associated expectations are not met ("I should, but I haven't and don't really want to"), the individual will feel guilty, inadequate, and even resentful because they have not fulfilled this abstract should requirement. Addicts, especially, will have better success when they seek treatment as the result of an internal, conscious choice instead of as a response to what they imagine to be the unspoken expectations of friends, family, and society.

3. Mental filter and disqualifying the positive. These distortions are usually addressed separately, but are grouped together here because if an addict is using one, they are usually using the other as well. In the case of the mental filter, imagine that a clear blue film has been placed over the addict's eyes. The addict's entire understanding of reality is experienced through that film, which represents different events or issues unique to each addict. A veteran of war, for example, may be unable to shake the traumatic memories of a friend's death and is reminded of this in everything they do. Addiction itself can be a type of mental filter. To continue with this example of the veteran, he or she may minimize the positive things - like personal successes and interpersonal relationships - in light of this traumatic experience. "Nothing else matters" and "that's not really important." Many individuals, including veterans, turn to substances as a form of avoidance coping to try to deal with the difficult experiences that they have had. Addicts often give the drug priority and gradually minimize the value of other aspects of their life. 

4. Labeling. Labeling is a form of over-generalization, in which an individual perceives a single event to be part of a larger pattern of cosmic "unfairness" targeted at the person. Addicts will often label themselves, which can begin a destructive cycle of circular reasoning. "I behaved this way; therefore, I am a bad person," which is followed by "I am a bad person; therefore, it makes sense that I behave this way" and so on. An example of over-generalization would be "My mother did not love me; therefore, I am not worthy of love." When it appears in combination with should statements, labeling can create troublesome internal conflict in an addict. Over-generalizations can diminish an addict's feelings of self-worth, impairing them from recognizing the reality that they are loved by many, and are worthy of love and a happy life!

5. Magnification (and/or minimization). Is the addict still feeling the aftermath of a poor career decision? Have they not recovered from a romantic relationship that ended badly? Was someone else's addiction "easier" to overcome? Most people experience periods of grieving or regret, but some individuals prolong this period past what would be considered a reasonable time and obsess over their errors and flaws (magnification) while also justifying and excusing those of others (minimization).

6. Personalization. Perhaps the easiest example of this cognitive distortion is the child who feels at fault for his or her parents' divorce, or who excuses abuse as a form of deserved punishment. In personalization, the individual believes he or she is somehow - in whole or in part - to blame for an event or issue that is not directly related to anything that he or she has done.

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