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Four Thinking Mistakes that Can Stand in the Way of Addiction Recovery

Four Thinking Mistakes that Can Stand in the Way of Addiction Recovery

One of the most important ideas in modern psychology is that our thoughts are largely responsible for our emotional reactions. This is a central concept in cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, dialectical behavioral therapy, or DBT, and other cognitive therapies. For example, someone cuts you off in traffic and you become angry.

However, the other driver didn’t directly cause you to be angry. What made you angry were your own beliefs about the situation, perhaps something like, “That guy shouldn’t have done that,” or “That was a deliberate insult.” Most of the time, these things are just accidental, the result of momentary inattention. If you can think about them in that way, they don’t upset you very much. 

A lot of cognitive therapy is focused on identifying and challenging these distorted beliefs. In another post, we looked at how inaccurate thinking can contribute indirectly to addiction by worsening anxiety. Here, we are going to look at some ways that inaccurate thinking can more directly keep you from seeking help for addiction and sticking to your recovery plan.

1. All-or-Nothing Thinking

One of the worst offenders is all-or-nothing or black-and-white thinking. In this way of thinking, something is either a total success or a total failure. The problem is that pretty much everything in life is a mixed bag and if you’re only happy with total victories, you are not going to be very happy and you’re not going to try many things.

There are several ways all-or-nothing thinking can hold back your recovery from addiction. The first is if you’re waiting for the perfect time to act--because there will never be a perfect time. There will always be some excuse--you’re busy with work, you’re not feeling well, you have to feed your cat, and so on. Since addiction is a progressive disease, getting help will always be harder in the future, so it’s better not to wait for the perfect time.

Second, there are a lot of treatment options, all requiring different levels of commitment in terms of time and money. Sometimes you just can’t get the level of treatment you feel you need but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to get some kind of help. For example, you may feel like you need inpatient treatment to help you deal with cravings and avoid toxic influences, but it’s just not possible right now for whatever reason. It’s still worth your time to try something, whether it’s an outpatient program, seeing a therapist, or going to 12-step meetings. Look for ways to improve your situation, even if they’re not perfect solutions.

Third, it’s pretty common for people to slip in recovery. It’s also pretty common, when this happens, to think, “Well, I’ve already ruined my recovery, so I might as well go all the way.” In reality, a slip and a full relapse are not even close to the same. A slip is a setback but it’s also easy to fix. If you keep going, you put yourself at risk for an overdose and when you finally do decide to get sober again, you may have to go through withdrawal again. It’s better to limit the damage when you can.

2. Overgeneralization

Overgeneralization is another extremely common error. It can take two forms. It’s typically either, “I did badly in this one particular thing, and therefore I’m no good at anything,” or “I failed on my first try and therefore I’ll never succeed.” Both of these are objectively false and they make recovery harder. For the first one, overgeneralizing horizontally, as it were, you will probably find some aspects of recovery harder than others.

Maybe group therapy is a challenge or maybe you’re trying to make some healthy lifestyle changes and they just don’t seem to stick. That can be terribly frustrating but it also doesn’t mean you’re comprehensively screwing up your recovery. There may be other aspects that are going really well, perhaps individual therapy or improving communication with your family. Give yourself credit for those things as you continue to work on the more challenging aspects. 

Similarly, you may have tried to get sober once or twice, slid back into drinking and using drugs, and decided, “I’m just never going to be able to stay sober.” You’re taking that very limited data to be decisive. In reality, plenty of people have to try several times to stay sober. People slip up, they have full relapses, but they keep at it and eventually have a long recovery. Persistence will eventually pay off.

3. Telescoping

Telescoping is when you focus on the bad aspects of a situation to the point where you can’t even see the good. For example, you might enter treatment feeling ambivalent about being there and immediately start looking for reasons to leave. You become laser-focused on every little thing that’s wrong with your treatment program or facility.

Maybe a counselor misspoke and called something by the wrong name, so you decide the staff doesn’t know what they’re doing--also an example of overgeneralization--or maybe your room isn’t quite as nice as you would like it to be so you complain about the facilities being awful, and so on. You may be so focused on these things that you really believe they prove the program is no good. 

However, you may also be missing out on a lot of benefits by being too focused on the negative aspects of your experience. Maybe you’ve met some pretty great people or your therapist is really astute or you discovered that you really love hiking. When you feel like you’re too focused on the negatives, try broadening your scope. See if you identify some positive things too. It will not only improve your treatment experience, but it will make you happier overall.

4. Fundamental Attribution Error

The fundamental attribution error is not typically identified as a cognitive distortion in CBT but it is relevant for anyone in recovery. It’s the belief that your own actions are the result of specific circumstances but other people’s actions are a result of their basic character. Going back to the traffic example, when you cut someone off, it was because you just didn’t see them or you weren’t aware the lane ended, or something, and you’re usually a very courteous driver but when they cut you off, they’re a reckless jerk. In the context of recovery, a very similar thing is common.

You go to a 12-step meeting or you enter a treatment program and talk to other people a little bit and you suddenly feel like you don’t belong there. You’ve just been under a lot of stress at work or your friends have been partying a lot lately so you’ve been drinking or using drugs more than you probably should, but all the other people there are addicts

This can be a big impediment to engaging with treatment because you feel like what applies to other people doesn’t apply to you. In AA, they call this “terminal uniqueness.” What’s important is not to yoke yourself with the addict label but rather to realize that everyone around you is also there because of specific circumstances.

Everyone has been feeling stressed, or coping with traumatic memories, or struggling with depression, and so on, and everyone there--including you--needs a bit of help with their substance use. Accepting that everyone there has a story, helps you overcome terminal uniqueness, allowing you to be more engaged in treatment and feel a genuine connection to the people around you.

There are many ways your mind can play tricks on you when it comes to addiction. The thinking mistakes discussed above can apply to pretty much anything but they are particularly relevant for people seeking and engaging with treatment. Being aware of them is the first step in overcoming them.

At The Foundry, we know that everyone has a different story and different needs from treatment. We believe that treatment for addiction should always be individualized but that everyone benefits by making the journey together. We also use evidence-based therapeutic methods including CBT and DBT to help clients untie the knots that are holding them back. To learn more, call us today at (844) 955-1066.

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