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How Negative Thinking Sabotages Recovery

Often times, we are our own worst enemy. We are our worst critics. As a therapist I like to take a strengths-based approach with those I serve. What qualities do they possess that will support their recovery?  When I ask a person to identify their strengths, they typically pause and struggle to answer. Why is it so difficult to identify qualities about ourselves that we like, enjoy, or make us good people?  Some may think speaking about their strengths makes them sound conceited or boisterous.  But the true reason, is that people possess core beliefs about themselves that they are a failure, or unlovable, or a bad person.  These core beliefs are ingrained in our thinking, sometimes from an early age, based on life experiences.  Years of addiction and engaging in negative behavior or harming others emotionally, due to active addiction just reinforces these negative core beliefs.

So, how do we change our negative thinking?

First, we need to develop insight into our thought processes.  Everyone typically interprets interactions with others in a personal way. If we feel negative about ourselves then we interpret other people’s actions towards us, negatively. Makes sense right?

A good tool to track our thought processes and develop insight about our thinking is using a thought log.  It’s a simple log where on a daily basis, you can write down a scenario/event from the day, what your thoughts were when it happened and how you responded.

Second, using your thought log for each event and the accompanying thought that you recorded, try and think of an alternative thought.  What I usually tell individuals I’m working with is, “Think of an alternative thought that is kinder to you and based in truth or fact.”

Example:

  • Event: I asked Susie on a date and she replied that she couldn’t go because she already had plans.
  • Thought: I’m an idiot. Why would Susie want to go out with me? I’m a loser. She’s way out of me league. I’m unattractive. I’ll be single forever…(you get the point)
  • Behavior/Consequence: Because I was rejected, I felt sad and lonely. I acted out in anger at my friends because I was feeling so miserable.  Now they are upset with me.
  • Alternative Thought, that’s kind to me and based in truth or fact (the MOST important part of this process): Maybe Susie really is busy. I should trust what she’s saying. I have friends that like me for who I am; I’m not an idiot. I am satisfied by the way I look.  I’ve accomplished many things, I have a job and an apartment, and I’m not a loser.  If Susie doesn’t like me, there may be someone else that will.  I most likely will not be single forever.

Third, after recording many events in your thought log, you must practice the alternative thinking on a regular basis.  This takes time, practice and patience.  To reverse negative thinking that’s existed for most of your life won’t go away overnight. But if you actively use alternative thoughts in your daily interactions, it will improve over time.

So how does this relate to one’s recovery?  When you are struggling in your recovery, everyone gets to this point at some time, it makes you feel that you are failing (negative thinking) and that negative thinking can become pervasive. When you don’t want to think or feel this way anymore, using substances can become a quick fix. It makes the thoughts and feelings go away, temporarily. But they will return, and usually are magnified, because now you also have the feeling and thoughts that you have failed, yet again.

Which brings us back to the point of practice and patience.  Recovery is a lifelong process. It never ends. One has to continue to grow and improve themselves in order to continue on their path. Developing a practice of challenging your negative thinking is part of personal growth. And before you know it, it will become second nature.

-Katherine November, LCSW

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