How Addiction Distorts Thinking

From the outside, addictive behavior is completely irrational. It looks like someone wasting time and money on something that damages his health, relationships, and career. The situation looks very different from the perspective of the addiction. The addiction wants to protect itself. It becomes the priority and everything that doesn’t support it–including cold logic–must be wrong. There are several common ways addictive thinking becomes distorted.

Denial. This is the first line of defense. This is when someone says flat out he doesn’t have a problem despite clear evidence that he does. Denial sometimes takes the form of the “I’m special” argument. “Drinking so much might be a problem for other people, but I can handle it.” This is the kind of thinking that allows you to rant about people texting while driving, but then immediately get your phone out to text someone because “it’s really important.” We always think we’re the exception and addiction amplifies that tendency.

Rationalization. To rationalize simply means to believe there is a good reason for destructive behavior. You might say something like, “This job is so stressful, of course I’m going to drink,” or “Anyone who had a childhood like mine would do drugs.” It’s true that chronic stress and childhood trauma are common causes of addictive behavior but they don’t mitigate the damage of addictive behavior.

The rationalization serves as an excuse not to do anything about the addiction. To combat rationalization, you have acknowledge on the one hand that chronic stress or and abusive childhood might influence addictive behavior, but realize addictive behavior causes negative effects of its own. That is, how you ended up in the hole is not as important as how you get out.

Externalization. This is when you attribute your problems to external factors. Often, it’s a sort of inversion such as “I drink because work is stressful” when in reality, work is stressful because you drink. Maybe you come in late or leave early. Maybe you show up to meetings unprepared and hungover. Obviously, those behaviors would cause problems at work, but addiction distorts your thinking so that cause and effect are reversed. Externalization is dangerous because it often leads to resentment. Everyone’s against you or trying to sabotage you so you end up angry at a lot of people. This only makes your situation worse and entrenches you in distorted thinking. There is a good reason why AA puts so much emphasis on healing resentments.

Addictive thinking is adaptable and cunning. It can seem very convincing. Getting an addict to see the problem clearly is difficult and sometimes he just has to figure it out the hard way. Thinking clearly is a process that often suffers setbacks, but it’s worth it in the long run.