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Cognitive Distortions That Interfere in Recovery

Medically Reviewed by: Charley Allen

Table of Contents

Cognitive Distortions that Interfere in Recovery cover

Part of getting sober involves changing ineffective thinking patterns that may lead a person to relapse. In many ways, alcohol and drugs are used by addicts as a “solution” to their problems. This is why the recovery process involves far more than simply quitting drugs and alcohol. While quitting these addictive substances is indeed necessary, long term recovery depends on a person’s ability to develop new solutions to their problems that do not involve getting acutely intoxicated. In fact, current research shows that relapse is more often a result of a failure to develop healthy coping skills than it is from being in high-risk situations.

Many problems are simply the products of dysfunctional thinking patterns. In cognitive behavioral therapy, these dysfunctional thinking patterns are known as “cognitive distortions.” They are inaccurate and unhealthy ways of processing reality that ultimately lead to dangerous and unproductive behaviors, such as reaching for a drink or buying drugs.

Cognitive distortions and dysfunctional thinking patterns can cause a person to suffer from painful emotions such as hopelessness, unworthiness, grief, and grandiosity. Insecurity is also a common result. It is normal to feel pain and suffering at times, but a lot of unnecessary pain and suffering can be avoided by thinking more realistically about oneself and one’s circumstances. Instead of assuming the worst, jumping to conclusions, or distorting the facts, it is far better to assess your daily life calmly and accurately. By recognizing the most common cognitive distortions and dysfunctional thinking patterns, the likelihood of setting yourself up for relapse goes down considerably.

Labeling Yourself Negatively

Plenty of people claim to be against “labels,” but most people nonetheless use them silently in their own heads. People with substance use disorders are especially prone to this behavior. After years of engaging in addiction and experiencing the destructive consequences, it is tempting to label yourself a “loser,” a “failure,” or simply “no good.” This can lead to lowered self-esteem and reduce motivation to improve one’s situation. As such, these labels function as self-fulfilling prophecies. Even if you fail at something, such as not getting a job, that does not mean you are a failure – it simply means that one didn’t work out. Try again! By rejecting these labels, you are far more likely to engage in activities that promote your well-being and ultimately improve your self-esteem.

Labeling Others Negatively

While working to recover from a drug or alcohol addiction, it is critical to develop a strong sober social support system. However, it is very difficult to do so without being open to other people. Judgments about others can lead you to think of them as “unpleasant” or “stupid” or “no good.” This can cause you to feel anger or resentment toward these people even before they’ve done anything to you. Even if there is some tension, that is not necessarily their fault. By labeling them in advance, you make it far more difficult to engage in social interactions in good faith. A great deal of these labels emerge from generalizations about different groups. For instance, if you’ve had a bad experience with a therapist or with an educator, you may label them as bad and feel hostile or angry toward all of them. Ultimately, in labeling these people and closing yourself off to them, you are only hurting yourself.

Making Predictions About the Future

People with depression or anxiety often feel that they have privileged access to knowledge of the future. This knowledge often comes in the form of intuition. While these individuals may feel that they know what is going to happen to advance, the reality is that these are mere emotions. Unpleasant and anxious feelings cause people to rehearse future events in their minds. During these mental rehearsals, it is common to foresee all the negative circumstances or results that could, in theory, occur. In reality, there is no way of knowing what the future holds. The only way to know is to try. Moreover, sometimes making negative predictions causes a person to engage in an activity in a negative or resentful way, which can make their prediction self-fulfilling.

Mind Reading

Making predictions about the future isn’t the only cognitive distortion involving a delusion of omniscience. One of the most common dysfunctional thinking patterns people engage in is known as “mind reading.” When people “mind read,” they aren’t literally looking into a person’s mind. Instead, they are guessing what a person is thinking. Usually these guesses are negative. One may assume that other people hate them, or that it’s not worth asking a question because you already know how they’re going to answer. An example of mind reading is when a person notices that their partner has been quiet or subdued and assumes that this is because they want to break. While this may be true, there is no way of knowing without having a conversation first.

Discounting the Positive

The world isn’t a perfect place. But it also isn’t a terrible one. It’s a mixed place, and everyone on the planet has both highs and lows. “Discounting the positive” is a cognitive distortion that causes people to only see the negative side of their lives. For instance, you may be unhappy at your job. Obviously this is a circumstance that requires you to take action (such as applying to a different job), but that doesn’t mean your job is entirely negative. You might, for instance, have learned valuable skills there, or made friends, or perhaps have experienced some other benefit. It is not wise to become blindly positive and ignore aspects of your life that need changing, but being able to see the nuances of your life is important.

Changing Your Thinking in Recovery

There are many other dysfunctional thinking patterns that people in recovery can replace with healthier ones. These other cognitive distortions include over-generalizing, exaggerating, creating “must’s” and “should’s,” among others. These ways of thinking can lead to addictive behaviors and upsetting mood swings. The best way of practicing new ways of thinking is working with other people who are also trying to recover. Developing strong bonds and opening yourself up to other people in a sober living home is not only a great way to become more accountable, it also adds positivity and joy in your life. When you’re not alone, you’re less likely to dwell on your own individualized subjective assessments of your life – and far more likely to take action that is based on objective reality.

Enrolling in a sober living house not only helps you quit drugs and alcohol, it helps you get out of your head. If you are ready to make a change, reach out today!

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Edited by: David Beasley

David Beasley - Design for Recovery

David Beasley is a certified RADT (Registered Alcohol/Drug Technician). David, moved to California from North Carolina after many failed attempts to get sober.

Medically Reviewed by: Charley Allen

Charley earned his Masters of Clinical Psychology from Antioch University, Los Angeles, and is a California Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT).He teaches mindfulness to both adults and children in group setting such as schools, corporate workplaces, and medical treatment facilities.

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