Thinking Errors in Recovery
Cognitive distortions, or ”stinking thinking” as it is called in 12 step groups, are some of the most common reasons why people to falter in recovery. How and what you think is just as important as the actions you take to try to stay clean and sober. Here is a list of some of the most common thinking errors and how they can negatively affect recovery:
Thinking in Extremes: This is when you see things in all-or-nothing terms. Either something is a great success or an absolute failure, with no in between. If you slip up and use drugs one time, you may think, “I am destined to use drugs for the rest of my life and I am never going to get any better, so I might as well keep using.” Thoughts containing the words “always” or “never” also often lead to thinking in extremes. You may think, “My family is always on my case,” or, “My husband never supports me,” when these things are not always true.
Discounting the Positive: Not giving yourself credit for the positive changes you are making in your life can make you feel inadequate and unrewarded. You may think, “Normal people are able to stay sober, keep a job, and take care of their families; why should it be such a big deal when I am able to do it?” Recovery is hard work, and any move towards positive change–even if it is a minor thing–deserves to be acknowledged and celebrated.
Jumping to Conclusions: Assuming you know what others are thinking or how a situation is going to turn out can lead to unfounded feelings of negativity. “I know she thinks I am still using,” or, “I know that my boyfriend is going to break up with me,” are examples of this cognitive distortion. Jumping to conclusions is dangerous because it may cause you to react to a situation without having all of the facts.
“Should” Statements: This is when you tell yourself that things should be a certain way, and if they are not this way, you find the thing or situation to be unacceptable. If you say to yourself, “I should call my sponsor,” and then you don’t, it leads to feelings of guilt, failure, and disappointment. When directed towards others, these types of statements lead to feelings of anger; for example, “He should have followed through on what he said he was going to do.” Statements containing the words “must,” “ought,” or “have to” have the same effect as “should” statements.
Personalization and Blame: When you personalize a situation, you hold yourself accountable for things you have no control over. For example, you may blame yourself for someone else‘s choices or actions. Example: “Brittney wouldn’t have relapsed if I would have been with her that night.” Personalization leads to feeling of guilt and shame. Conversely, if you have blaming thoughts toward others, you fail to take responsibility for your part in the situation: “If he wouldn’t have made me so upset, I wouldn’t have gone out and used.” This can lead to feelings of resentment from others.
If you familiarize yourself with these common thinking errors, you will have the power to recognize them and manage them in a healthy way and will have a greater sense of control in recovery.
Kelly McClanahan has an MSW in clinical social work, with a specialization in substance abuse treatment. Having worked in this field for over 20 years, she is currently working on her certification as an addictions’ counselor.