Master Your Recovery Mindset
If you’re in trying to change your relationship with alcohol, a drug, sex, porn, or some other addictive behavior, you know it’s not a cakewalk. I want to walk you through an exercise today that will hopefully call attention to recurring thoughts that might be getting in the way of you reaching your goals.
I’m going to try something different here. I’m going to ask you to notice your first reactions to the statements that I’m going to give you. But in order for it to work, you have to promise to pause after you read each statement, taking note of what you’re thinking.
So don’t read on until you do that, okay? But first, a few words about why this is important. Let’s dive in.
Understanding Why You Became Emotionally Dependent On Your Addictive Behavior
So often, when people struggle with addictive behaviors, they wonder why they keep falling into the same trap of addiction over and over again. I find it helpful to help a new client I’m working with to come to an initial understanding of the addictive behavior in the context of his life story.
So, we explore what the addictive behaviors were doing for him, how they’ve been useful in coping with life, and why the behavior is important. Often, as we explore why and when a habit developed and got out of control, we discover that he was doing the best he could in his life. The addiction became a means to deal with painful trauma, overwhelming feelings, or abuse.
Taking some time to open up some of these life experiences and forming working hypotheses about the roles and functions of an addiction at the outset can do a few things, such as:
- Help you to feel less ashamed about your addictive behavior (e.g., understanding that you dealt with your shitty childhood by turning to porn might make it possible to believe that you were doing the best you could with the emotional tools you had)
- Come to an understanding about why changing your relationship with your problematic behavior has been so damn hard in the past
- Start to generate ideas about how to fulfill the needs that the addictive behavior was helping you with in other ways, so that you can reduce your emotional dependence on it (this can take time to actually accomplish, so be gentle with yourself)
Creating some awareness and understanding regarding your habit is all well and good. We need to know how we’ve been hurt in order to start to address our healing and how we’ve been using our addictive behavior to cope.
Indeed, cultivating this awareness is how we can start to become aware of our choices and make different choices. You can begin to master your recovery mindset by understanding what you’ve been using your addictive behavior to cope with.
But this understanding isn’t enough on its own to change behavior. I’d be doing my clients a disservice if I listened empathically to them but didn’t help them learn to change their addictive behavior.
Changing Your Old Mental Programming
Once you have an awareness of your pain, you can start to deal with it differently. Often this means finding ways of managing powerful feelings you haven’t dealt with before and reprogramming your mind to think differently. Why is this important?
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) posits that thoughts, feelings, and behavior influence each other. Changing our thoughts can change the way we feel and what we do. From this point of view, habitual behavior can be understood as responses to stimuli that we’ve learned to act upon in certain ways based on rewards.
For example, we get a kick of dopamine, a pleasure chemical released in our brains, whenever we eat chocolate, drink alcohol, have sex, watch porn, spend time with loved ones, or do anything pleasurable. Stimulus (chocolate) plus behavior (eating) equals reward (we feel good). We learn we like chocolate and are more likely to eat it again.
With problematic substance use or sexual behavior, the idea here is that over time, the addictive behavior is reinforced as we feel good each time we do it.
From a CBT perspective, the thoughts that motivate this behavior go unnoticed as the individual feels more and more out of control of his habit. Becoming aware of the thoughts that contribute to this behavior can, with practice, help to reduce addictive behavior if brought into awareness.
Your Automatic Thoughts About Your Addictive Behavior
Okay, it’s finally time for our experiment. Are you ready? Remember, after you read each statement, I want you to simply notice your first reactions, those thoughts that come to you automatically after reading the statement.
Take a moment to think of your habit or addictive behavior and insert it into the statement when you see a _____________. And remember to pause, okay? Here we go:
“I can live my life without _____________.”
“I will be free of _____________.”
“I can deal with my past without _____________.”
“I can’t deal with my feelings without _____________.”
Take a breath. What’s coming up for you? Give yourself some time, if you need to. Take a break and give yourself a break if that’s what you need. Put down your device and do something to care for yourself. I’ll be here.
Awareness, Then Acceptance
Exploring these thoughts and allowing them to come into our understanding can be revelatory and relieving, but it can also be painful. The first step for now is to simply notice these thoughts. Don’t try to change them. Acknowledge their presence. Note how they influence your feelings and their behavior. What do the thoughts and feelings want you to do?
Let me share with you a very personal example from my own life. For years, I used alcohol as a means of coping with my fear of failure. I was so anxious about my performance that I needed alcohol to cope, or at least, that’s what I told myself.
When I stopped drinking, I had to grapple hard with the thought that I was a failure and that I wouldn’t and couldn’t succeed. When I felt this way, I realized how powerful the urge was to drink, but I also felt more capable of making a different choice.
Accepting our feelings is a bitch. Allowing ourselves to accept the presence of and even befriend those parts of ourselves that we have exiled is hard. Hard. Fucking. Work. It’s the real work of recovery. It takes courage and tenacity and support. Healing isn’t easy, but it is possible.
If you need support in your journey, I’d love to have a conversation with you. Contact me today and let’s talk about what’s possible for you.
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