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Addiction’s Cognitive Distortions: Tips for Dealing with an Addict’s Version of Reality

People who are close to chemical and process addicts often have difficulty understanding what exactly is going on in their loved one’s head. They wonder why the possible consequences of addiction — job loss, divorce, loss of children, homelessness, incarceration, illness, death — don’t deter the addict from his or her addictive behaviors. They may also wonder how the addict manages to get through the day with these actual or potential consequences staring them in the face.

To the non-addict, an addict’s behaviour often seems irrational and illogical. The thing to remember with addiction is this: inside every addict is the belief that life would be unlivable without their drug. Therefore, their thinking goes, drug use must continue at all costs.

To maintain the belief “drug use must continue, no matter what,” addicts must insulate themselves from the pain their use causes themselves and others by deploying a complex set of interwoven cognitive distortions.

Cognitive Distortions in a Person With an Addiction

Cognitive distortion are ways of perceiving reality that can distort the truth of a situation. Anyone — non-addicts included — may use cognitive distortions. However, addicts and others with low self-esteem as well as people faced with disturbing realities may use these skewed ways of thinking more frequently than people who are well-functioning. The day-to-day situations of most addicted people are so wretched that without cognitive distortions, they would not be able to function.

What are some of the common cognitive distortions of addicted people?

Denial in Addiction

The person in denial refuses to accept or even acknowledge the existence or severity of a problem. Many experts in the treatment of addiction consider denial to be at the center of the disorder.

While addicts are not the only troubled people who use denial as a means to cope with disturbing realities, addicts use denial more consistently and comprehensively than people with other types of problems.

Personalization in an Addict

When personalization occurs, the addict feels that blame or responsibility is assigned to them at the mere mention of an event or situation. For example, if a family member declines the offer of a second helping at dinner, an addict using personalization may feel personally blamed, attacked, or judged by the family member’s refusal.

Personalization keeps the addict is an emotionally-overcharged state at all times. The uncomfortable feelings generated by personalization functions both as a “reason” to use, and as a distraction from the real problem, the addiction.

Emotional Reasoning in Addiction

When an addict uses emotional reasoning, they create an understanding of a situation based strictly on how they feel. For example, guilt may lead an addict to feel “unworthy of love”; emotional reasoning convinces them that feeling unworthy and being unworthy are the same thing. People who use emotional reasoning can enter into a self-destructive loop of negative thoughts and feelings that feed off each other and decrease the individual’s feelings of low self-esteem and lack of self-worth.

Like personalization, emotional reasoning gives the addict plenty of “reasons” to keep using, and also functions as a distraction from the real problem.

Addiction and Magnification/Minimization

Magnification involves over-analyzing and inflating one’s errors, flaws, and defects of character. Minimization involves ignoring, justifying, or explaining away serious problems and concerns. In other words, when addicts magnify issues, small molehills are mistaken for significant mountains. When they minimize issues, they are treating significant mountains like small molehills.

Most addicts use both magnification and minimization to defend and distract from the addiction and it’s consequences.

“Should” Statements in Someone With an Addiction

“Should” statements – like “I should be more committed to exercising” and “I should get some help with this problem” may be motivating statements for non-addicts, but for addicts “should” statements are like Kryptonite. “Should” statements sap all the addict’s resolve and replace it with self-loathing and helplessness. That’s because for people in addiction there are tremendous personal, familial, and societal expectations are hidden in the word “should”. The pressure of these perceived expectations results in the addicted person feeling trapped and resentful.

As with the other cognitive distortions, addicts use the emotional pain generated by “should” statements in two ways: to provide a “reason” for using and to distract from the consequences of the use.

Labeling and Addiction

Labeling inaccurately assigns meaning to people, things, and events. Because ________ happened, it means ___________ is always and everywhere true. In other words, labeling over-generalizes.

For example, an addict might say to himself: “I was late today, therefore I am unreliable.” Of course, having established that he is unreliable, the addict can now excuse himself from any obligation to even try to be on time: “I’m unreliable; therefore, people will expect me to be late, and so there is no point in me trying to be on time.”

Mental Filters in Addicts

An addict who uses a mental filter sees everything in the present reality through a past experience. In other words, the person has had an emotionally charged experience, and starts to view all subsequent experiences through the lens of the past event. For example, in addiction it is not unusual for addicts to face great danger and violence from others. Those experiences start to colour all their interactions so that they lose the ability to distinguish between trustworthy people who are trying to help and untrustworthy people who are trying to take advantage of them.

Like the other cognitive distortions, using a mental filter keeps the addict distracted from the consequences of her use, and generates a good deal of loneliness and isolation that then become a “reason” to continue to use.

Tips for Coping With An Addict’s Cognitive Distortions

Remember that addicts will not give up their distortions until they are ready. Chances are you will be ready for them to get rid of their distortions long before they are. Since an addict’s distortions will likely last as long as the addiction itself, you will likely need to find a way to balance your compassion and concern for the addict with a practical ‘no nonsense’ stance.

In other words, you will likely need to find a way to express caring and compassion without getting drawn into the drama and chaos. Many friends and family members of addicts find that the support and fellowship of others in the same situation helps them achieve this.

The most important thing to remember about an addict’s cognitive distortions is that you have a choice about whether or not you will join in. You have no control over the addict’s cognitive distortions, but you do have control over whether or not you will buy into them.If your instincts tell you that the addict’s perceptions of a situation are skewed, don’t doubt yourself. Go with your gut.

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