I am guessing that everyone who is in addiction recovery has some thinking problems.
If we are honest with ourselves then we have to admit that it is our screwed up thinking that got us addicted in the first place.
I definitely had some screwed up thinking myself in addiction, and it did not all just disappear into thin air the second that I surrendered and entered recovery.
When you surrender, what you are really doing is just getting past one tiny part of your thinking problems. You are getting past the denial in regards to your drug or alcohol use. But most of us have a little bit more “baggage” than that when it comes to thinking problems.
For example, one of my biggest struggles in early recovery was with self pity. This was a thinking problem that was left over from my addiction, and it threatened to drag me back down into relapse.
My thinking problem in early recovery and how I overcame it
I noticed when I was in very early recovery that I was sabotaging my own recovery effort. I had not relapsed yet or anything but I could clearly see how I was sort of setting myself up to be able to do so. Why was this happening? Because I was feeding into drama and I was feeling sorry for myself rather than taking action.
Why was I doing this? I was sort of mystified myself at my own behavior, and I was not sure what the solution was at first. But I could see what I was doing as I was sort of trapped in it. I would find some drama in my life and then I would focus on myself as being the victim of that drama. I was feeling sorry for myself and I was not even sure why I was doing it at first.
As I continued to do this I realized that I was setting myself up for a relapse. I was giving myself an “out” because I felt sorry for myself. I was trying to give myself permission to relapse. And I could look back at my life in addiction and see that this is how I used to operate. I used to do this all the time in order to justify my drinking and drugging. I would purposely find and focus on some piece of drama in my life so that I had a mental excuse for why I was drinking and drugging so much. This was how I justified my disease.
So it was extremely dangerous to be engaging in self pity when I was in recovery. I did not realize this at first and I had to sort of watch what my brain was doing with self pity and then see where it all led to. I am grateful that I never relapsed. Luckily I figured out that there were no benefits at all to self pity. All it was good for (in my life) was to serve as justification for using drugs and alcohol. There were no other benefits to it.
So at some point I realized that I had this problem, and that it was a thinking problem, and that it was really part of my addiction. Or I realized that it was left over from my addiction, and that it had no value at all in my life. And so I sort of had to make a decision: “Do I want to stay clean and sober in the long run?” If so, then I knew that I had to eliminate and somehow overcome this thinking problem. It was like a mental glitch that I knew that I had to clear up.
Learning to identify the problem thinking that can lead to misery
So I set out to try to fix this problem in any way that I could. But before you can do the same thing in your own life, you have to first be able to tell that you have a thinking problem.
This can be easier said than done because we are so close to our own minds. It can be hard to identify a thinking problem because we tend to identify our thoughts as being ourselves.
So one way that you might work on “separating this out” is to engage in meditation on a regular basis. Simple sit quietly and watch the mind, watch the thoughts come and go, and try not to judge those thoughts or follow them down any specific path. If you keep doing this over and over again you will start to get the idea that you are not actually those random thoughts that keep popping up, there is a real “you” beyond those thoughts, and now you are sitting beyond those thoughts and are able to observe them objectively (rather than just experiencing them subjectively).
What this means is that if you try meditation and stick with it for a few weeks you may learn some new things about yourself, simply by becoming more aware of your own thoughts. You may not have a revelation while you are meditating, but by engaging in the process you may realize something important when you are not meditating. It tends to work like that.
All I am suggesting here is that if you cannot identify any of your thinking problems, you may look inward and try to calm your mind a bit with meditation. Become more mindful of your thoughts and you will be able to observe them with a greater level of clarity.
The alternative to meditation is to simply ask for feedback. Ask your peers, sponsor, friends or family how exactly they think you are screwed up and sabotage yourself. They will give you their opinions and if you see a kernel of truth in anything that they say then it might be worth exploring a bit deeper. To be honest though I really had to self-diagnose my own self pity because I was fairly good at hiding it from the outside world. It was my own screwed up little mental game that I would play, and I had to identify it and eliminate it myself.
Commit to change
So there is another step in here before you magically fix your thinking problem.
The first step was to identify the problem. The second step is to make a decision and then commit to the idea of change.
This is entirely separate from just going through with the change. Before you spring into action and try to fix your thinking problem, you need to “go up one level in your mind” and decide that you really want to change this about yourself. It has to be one of those “top level decisions” that represents full surrender, just like your decision to stop drinking and using drugs was.
So don’t just casually decide that you have a thinking problem and that you might want to try to change it. Instead, commit to this change with the same level of determination that you used to overcome your addiction with. It is probably just as important in the long run because if you do not address your thinking problems in recovery then it will eventually lead you to relapse.
Making a mental agreement with yourself (creating a mental “policy” for your mind)
So how do you actually fix your diseased thinking?
In my experience it is a two part process. There are two actions that you can take that will fix the problem:
1) Employ a “zero tolerance policy” in your own mind for the diseased thinking.
2) Actively practice the opposite.
So let’s take a closer look at both of these ideas, because they need explanation.
The “zero tolerance policy” is a simple but effective idea.
First of all, you remember the suggestion for some light meditation? You don’t have to sit for 3 hours on the top of a mountain every day, but if you just experiment with quieting your mind for even 5 minutes per day, you will expand your awareness. You will start to notice things. You will start to “watch your thoughts” rather than just living passively and not thinking critically about your own thoughts.
You cannot fix your diseased thinking unless you are aware of it. The awareness must come first if you are to have any sort of chance at fixing it.
It is like someone who has an anger problem. The first step in fixing their anger problem is in noticing when they are becoming angry. Believe it or not this is over half of the battle, as most people who get escalated in anger do not even realize it is happening.
Your “thinking problem” may not be an anger issue though–it could be something like resentments, self pity, or negative self talk.
Whatever it is, you need to become aware of it before you can shut it down.
Now then, once you have learned how to identify your problem thinking, what can you do about it?
The first technique that you should use is to simply redirect your thoughts. Believe it or not it really can be just that simple. The hard part is in:
1) Realizing that your thinking is a problem.
2) Becoming aware enough to catch it when it is occurring (or starting to occur).
This is what I have come to call my “zero tolerance policy.”
So my big problem in early recovery was self pity. I loved to sit around and feel sorry for myself. It made me feel good inside because I now I had an excuse for anything that might not be measuring up in my life. In a way, it felt good to feel bad. But this is not healthy and it is also not helpful to the goal of sobriety. If you feel sorry for yourself all the time then it is easy to justify relapse. (Or at least it is easier to justify it than if you are not engaged in self pity).
As I mentioned, your “thinking problem” may not be self pity. But whatever it is, you can bet that it is a self destructive thought process if it eventually could lead to relapse. Most people have problems with resentments rather than with self pity. It is just another slice of the same problem, really. You are letting your thoughts trip you up and cause problems in your life. You are letting your thinking get the best of you. You are wasting mental energy on something that has no bearing on the real world.
The answer is to identify that problem thinking and then shut it down immediately. This will work for most types of problem thinking, most of the time (more on that below if it does not work for you).
What I had to do was to make a commitment to myself that I was not going to allow myself to engage in self pity any more, ever again. I was done with it. But I had to make this decision and really commit to it in order to make it stick.
So then when I would notice myself suddenly engaging in my problem thinking, I would recoil in horror and immediately scold myself back out of it. So in a way I was “shutting it down immediately” when I noticed it happening. I did not allow myself to keep thinking those diseased thoughts.
I would notice myself doing it suddenly and then realize that I had agreed that I would not do that any more, so I would immediately force myself to think about something else or to pursue a solution. Usually this worked. It was as if I suddenly realized that I was rehashing a problem in my mind (this could happen with either self pity or a resentment towards others) and then I would force myself to shift gears and so to myself:
“OK, so I am stuck in this rut here, what is the solution? What action am I not taking that I need to be taking? What am I avoiding so that I can be healthier and move past this mental garbage?”
In all cases I have been able to get into action and out of my head, so to speak. In all cases I was able to take action and do something positive and move beyond my diseased thinking.
For the first week or two I had to be hyper-aware of my tendency toward self pity. I had to really pay close attention and try to catch myself immediately when it would happen. After a few weeks of this it became automatic, and a part of who I was. Now my “defense system” against this sort of diseased thinking is on full auto-pilot. When it creeps into my life I have trained myself to realize it, raise my awareness, and be on guard against it. I take action immediately in order to correct it when I see it occur. I take action rather than to wallow in my own thoughts. I already know this is the solution, so I don’t waste time or energy getting stuck in negative thought patterns.
Once this reaction to your negative thinking becomes automatic, you have now developed and implemented the “zero tolerance policy” in your own life. You no longer tolerate the negative thought pattern that you find to be so damaging.
So the only question becomes:
“What do you do if this doesn’t work for you? What do you do if you try to shut the negative thoughts down and it doesn’t work? What then?”
That is when you must “do the opposite.”
Actively practicing the opposite
What do I mean by “doing the opposite?”
I really only have extensive experience with one type of negative thought pattern, and that is self pity.
I can tell you what “doing the opposite” is when it comes to self pity:
It is practicing gratitude.
The cure for self pity is gratitude. If you are extremely grateful then you are not, by definition, engaging in self pity. You can’t. It is not possible. Because when you are grateful–truly grateful–it is impossible to feel sorry for yourself.
So if you notice that you have a “thinking problem,” then you would do well to correct the problem, right? The way to correct is to figure out the polar opposite, and do that.
With resentment, it may be something more along the lines of “being nice to your enemies” or “praying for your enemies or the people you resent” or something like that. To be honest I am not sure as I never really had that exact problem. My problem was that I felt sorry for myself, and I had to find a way to pull myself out of that hole. The way out was through gratitude.
And I did not just say “oh, I guess I should be more grateful, because that will help overcome my self pity problem.”
No, I actually had to practice gratitude. That means work.
So I studied the idea of gratitude. I actually talked with people like my peers, my sponsor, and I got lots of feedback.
I made gratitude lists. I studied and read about philosophies that explored gratitude (such as Stoicism).
I really got into this gratitude thing and I worked hard at building it up in my life.
In the long run, this made a huge impact on getting rid of my self pity problem. Not only had I made this mental agreement with myself that I was going to shut down any little bit of self pity that might pop up, but I also made a distinct effort to try to actively pursue “the opposite of my thinking problem” and I worked hard at building up that practice in my life.
Avoiding thinking problems in long term sobriety
If you want to stay vigilant against these sorts of thinking problems then you have two basic options (of which you should use both):
1) Self awareness.
2) Feedback from others.
So either you can identify your potential thinking problems, or other people in your life can. Of course for either for these to work you have to be open to the idea. That is at least half of the battle and another big chunk of the battle is in simply increasing your awareness.
With self awareness you are basing this on your own level of mindfulness. So you might try meditation in order to tune in to what the mental chatter in your mind is really doing to you. This is probably the biggest tool that you can use to raise your own awareness. You might also try keeping a written journal as a way to study your thinking patterns over time. If you are not measuring anything than you can’t make any judgments or decisions about it. Keeping a journal is one way to measure your thoughts.
Talking with other people is a risk, especially if you are are exposing your innermost thoughts and ideas with them. Therefore you need people in your life that you can trust with these ideas. Then you try to open up to them and bounce your thinking and ideas off of them. You try to be honest and let them know how you are feeling and what you are thinking. When you do this they can give you feedback and let you know if you have fallen into a trap.
Obviously if you use both of these techniques you will be much better protected against relapse as a result of diseased thinking. Monitor your thoughts in order to keep them healthy.
How to know when you are in a mental trap of your own making
If you are thinking about drinking or using your drug of choice, then that is your biggest red flag right there. If you are thinking that it would be easy to justify a relapse, then that is another huge flag as well.
If you notice these warning signs then take action. Go seek help from other people. Find someone that you trust in recovery and tell them about your urges and cravings to use. This is the only acceptable course of action. You cannot keep it a secret or it will destroy you. Share your problem with someone else and trust that this will help you.
Then take their advice and feedback so that you can get started on a healthy path again. After straying from recovery you need to get back on track as quickly as possible. Recovery is pass/fail so if you relapse, all is lost (at least initially, and it is long and tough road to rebuild….a chance that some addicts and alcoholics miss out on completely).