Part of getting sober is recognizing that dysfunctional thinking played a role in developing an addiction. Yet, it likely played a role prior to the addiction and possibly triggered feelings of unworthiness, hopelessness, loss, grief, or grandiosity. Sometimes dysfunctional thoughts can become a way to cope with a chaotic family environment or a challenging emotional circumstance or trauma. We tell ourselves what we need to hear in order to cope.
Dysfunctional thinking patterns become obstacles to seeing your life clearly. They can cause jumping to conclusions, assuming the worst, and distorting the facts. Common dysfunctional thinking patterns are listed below. They are included here in order to help you identity in yourself those thoughts that perhaps led to drinking or drug use or depression. More importantly, this list is provided here to help you redirect yourself when you have a thought that might trigger a craving or relapse.
- Negative Labeling of Yourself. Labeling yourself as “no good” can cause low self-esteem and take away any motivation or energy you might have. It can become a self-fulfilling prophecy if given enough energy and attention. You end up not trying anything that might promote success, achievement, or feeling accomplished. By not trying you end up adding to your feelings of failure and low self-esteem. You might fail an exam, for instance, and immediately label yourself as stupid. Doing so, takes the motivation out of trying harder for the next exam. Instead, you might feel like a failure in that class which might lead to feeling like a failure in other areas of your life.
- Negative Labeling of Others. When you see others as “no good” or “unpleasant”, you begin to resent and/or feel anger towards them. For instance, if you read about older men who were abusing young children, you might feel angry or hostile towards older men.
- Negatively Predicting the Future. This is common among those who have depression or anxiety. When there are unpleasant or anxious feelings about an upcoming event, it’s common to rehearse that event in your mind and foresee all the negative circumstances. This, of course, takes away from the ability to enjoy that event while it’s happening and also make the most of the experience. This can also take the fun out of other experiences similar to the one imagined in a negative light.
- Thinking the Worst. Sometimes, it’s possible to jump to conclusions based on the behaviors of others. For instance, a woman’s husband comes home from work and he is subdued than other days. She immediately jumps to the idea that he is withdrawing from the relationship and wants to end their marriage. Another example when a friend calls to say he can’t make your birthday party; you assume that he doesn’t like you anymore and is distancing himself from you.
- Discounting the Positive. Core beliefs about the world can prevent you from seeing the positive. For instance, if you have a core belief about being unworthy, you may not be able to see the value that you bring to your job and your workplace. You might discount the positive when a co-worker praises your efforts.
Other types of distorted thinking includes exaggeration, over-generalizing, creating “should’s” and “must’s,” and underestimating your ability to adapt, change, or bear with discomfort. These types of dysfunctional thinking are more common than one would think. Although they can indeed lead to addictive patterns, many of those who are not addicted to substances also experience these unhealthy thinking patterns.
Regardless of whether there is an addiction, however, recognizing specific thoughts can facilitate feeling better, healthier, and more alive. It can also facilitate making better choices that promote a healthy, happy life.
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