Stinking Thinking in Recovery

January 16, 2017
Johann Kassim

Facts Every Recovering Addict Needs to Know: When our thoughts don’t serve – Stinking Thinking!

Critical thinking is valued in our society. Most of us go for a decent education to learn how to think critically. However, as it may be a blessing for those striving for a profitable future, the act of thinking critically itself is flawed and harmful especially when it is turned inwards. The result is  cognitive distortions or impaired thinking called “stinking thinking.” It is no exaggeration to say that addicts are some of the smartest people on the planet. Active addiction involved immense cognitive energy to keep the lies, manipulation, and addiction alive and well. Hence, it is not surprising that in recovery, we have a panoply of distorted thoughts based on the very skill we were meant to prize when young – our ability to rationalize and think.

“Stinking thinking” is a colloquial term for cognitive distortions. They are a set of negative thoughts and beliefs about a particular situation, which in the long run makes life unmanageable without some kind of panacea. This phenomenon consists of our inner dialogue, which criticizes and analyzes every minute detail of our lives providing constant if not incessant negative feedback, which then produces a slurry of negative emotions and energy. It usually occurs in early recovery but can be a lifelong problem if not intervened, challenged, and treated. Ultimately, it has the power to lure the unsuspecting addict into relapse. As they say in AA, “We stink think ourselves into another drink!”

Modes of Stinking Thinking – The methods we use to “stink think”.   

The ways we “stink think” are as varied from each individual to another. Nevertheless, we could categorize these patterns into a number of common modes of “stinking thinking”, which are recognizable across the board. What all these types of thinking have in common is that they are “absolute” statements with no wriggle room; and that they are forcefully presented when they materialize in our thoughts – so much so that we mistake them as reality. They are as follows:

i) Global Thinking/Overgeneralization –  This is assuming that one point applies to everything. For example, you get dumped by someone and refuse to pursue any romantic relationships in the future for you presume that all relationships will end in tears and fighting. Usually it can be spotted when we use this phrase: This always/never happens to me.

ii)  Minimization – When one takes a big thing and makes a small deal out it, he/she has minimized the significance or importance of a particular issue. For example, having an argument where one has hurt a loved one can easily be swept aside by stating that                                    she is only my mother; and therefore deserving of the cruel treatment earlier.

iii) Maximization/Magnification – This happens when we turn small issues into big ones. For example, when missing one workout session or having a “cheat meal” spells the end of recovery. Or thinking that by being slightly over-weight means that one is not a good person.

iv) Emotional Reasoning – We believe that because we feel a particular way therefore it must be real. For example, if we feel nervous about flying, it’s best to avoid it because the feeling omens an air disaster.

v) Mental Filtering – We filter out any positive regard about our actions and focus solely on the negative. For example, when given feedback, we may have a slurry of compliments, but that one negative feedback is focused on exclusively and obsessed over time without number.

vi) Black & White / All or Nothing – We either see things in two extreme poles of opposites. For example, “you are either with us or against us.” It does not consider the multiple perspectives to a particular issue.

vii) Jumping to conclusions – We jump to conclusions / assume in two ways:

a) Mind Reading – This is when we read into situations without any conclusive evidence about our thoughts. For example, not bothering to ask someone out for a drink because we’ve concluded what his/her response is going to be. We will find that contrary action to this behavior may surprise us with wonders beyond our expectations of others.      

b) Fortune Telling – This is when given a set of circumstances, we can predict its outcomes. For instance, deciding not to go home for the holidays for fear of arguments and conflict notwithstanding current situations at home.  

viii) Shouldisms/Musterbation – These are thoughts that tell us what we ought to have done. It is obsessional regret over certain situations in life. For example, I should’ve swept the floor last night or I must finish this work before 4 p.m. today.  It conditions joy and therefore is not useful for accepting life on its own terms or as it really stands.        

ix) Labeling – We tend to label ourselves with unhelpful words when we feel bad about something. For example, I’m a jerk for believing in him or I’m a loser because I couldn’t even muster the courage to ask her out for a drink. Here, it’s important to be real with who we really are as human beings.

x)  Personalization – This is taking full responsibility for things that are out of one’s control. For instance, it was my fault that I could not get the job done as a relative passed away. The passing of a relative is out of one’s control and therefore, there is not need to take responsibility for its occurrence.

Why should I know all of this?

1) It allows us to be mindful when it happens.

It is important to learn about “stinking thinking” because we can then catch it when it recurs. Being mindful allows us to formulate alternative behaviors as a means to combat these cognitive distortions.

2) It encourages us to become our own therapist.

We can dispute these thoughts and beliefs in our daily living. One way for doing that is by practicing cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) on ourselves when we are in a cycle of despair and emotional pain. We need to be more curious as to why it is happening and how we can change those thoughts so that our feelings and behavior change towards the positive rather than the negative.

3) Relapse prevention

Continuous negative dialogue is not healthy for recovery. If not intervened, it will accumulate to a point that relapse becomes the only option out of the pain. Hence, learning to deal with these cognitive disturbances is essential to maintaining one’s sobriety and preventing relapse from recurring.

4) It enhances self compassion

What needs to be duly noted is that by being aware of our own negative self-talk, we can take a compassionate stand away from the suffering it creates. We can accept the fact that cognitive distortions are a universal phenomenon and that it is a natural part of the recovering self. Having acceptance in these areas and kindness in turn for these difficult emotions, will ease recovery far greater than if one is ignorant about these things.

The Solace Difference:

At Solace Sabah, we introduce you to you. Through CBT, interpersonal group therapy, and community living; you or your loved one will be immersed in a supportive environment where issues around cognitive distortions will be presented and processed. You or your loved one will know what tools can be used and applied in the world beyond this rehabilitation facility. It is not about going back the same person that went in; but, about a personal transformation, which can only happen when we decide to change the way we think – from critical to helpful. In other words, to live for life!

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