By: Marilyn L. Davis
Dealing with Our Risky Thinking
Counselors, therapists, and supportive friends all caution about avoiding people, places, and situations that prompt us to think about using. While these external prompts are powerful, other internal triggers are equally problematic. In recovery, we need to be mindful of the effects of our emotions and thinking.
If you start with these seven risky attitudes and thoughts, see if they are present in your present thinking. If so, there’s a possibility that you’re headed back to a relapse.
1. Overly Confident or Cocky Thinking
- “I’ve got this addiction licked. I know what to do and don’t need other people’s advice.”
While deciding to stop using was an important one, until we follow through with behavioral and attitudinal changes, it’s easy to get overly confident about our recovery. If it was only about discontinuing our use, we wouldn’t have to make other changes.
However, it is reasonable to feel proud of positive decisions and actions, such as stopping our use. This attitude becomes a problem when cockiness or an overly confident attitude replaces pride.
Most of us in recovery exhibited other behaviors, cognitive distortions or thinking falsehoods, and actions that were just as harmful to our life as our use. Without looking at the other behaviors, and making the effort to change or modify them, we can still experience unhappiness in our lives, often times leading us back to drug and alcohol use.
In the end, it’s easier to change these detrimental behaviors than to risk relapsing and perhaps not make it back.
2. Complacent, Self-righteous, or Smug Thinking
- “What’s the big deal? I haven’t thought about using in a week.”
Complacency typically sets in when a person thinks they know everything about a subject or that no one can teach them anything else. In our recovery, when we get complacent and take for granted that we have all the answers, the smallest setback can blind side us when we realize that we don’t have enough knowledge to cope.
We do know how to deal with many aspects of our addiction, however, just as a business that does not grow will become stagnant; the same is true of our recovery.
For instance, if you attended five recovery support meetings in your early recovery, you may not attend as many as you did, but you now use that time to volunteer for a charity or are more involved with your children’s school or sports activities.
3. Dishonest Thinking
- “I’m in a lot of pain. I didn’t tell my doctor that I was in recovery, and besides, if I tell anyone I got pain meds, they’ll talk badly about me.
When we start telling “white lies,” small untruths, justifying or making excuses that are not true, this is only one step removed from lying to ourselves about our addiction or recovery.
I like the analogy of a mountain and a marble. Imagine tripping over a mountain; I know most of you are laughing, wanting to remind me how large a mountain is. Rightfully so, however, if I put a small marble on the ground and you are unaware of it, I guarantee, someone will trip over it.
We feel pride in noticing the big things; yet it is often the little things in life that trip us up.
And white or little lies will trip us up, too. We need to be mindful of how the smaller situations in life can set us back, and may take us back to our use.
4. Expectations of Self and Others: Unrealistic Thinking
- “Now that I’m in recovery, all my other issues should just resolve themselves.”
Or, we realize how much time we squandered in our use, feel guilty, and think we should be doing too many things for one person to carry out in a month; so we overload our daily schedules trying to make up for lost time.
Some of us find that we create expectations of others and then get frustrated when they are not doing what we think they ought to do; this happens when we do not tell them our expectations but assume that they ought to know what we want or need.
Unless we state the expectations, and they are realistic, wanting others to conform to our standards is just setting us, and them up. It can lead to a defeatist attitude of, “What’s the use or point in all of this?”
Also, expecting others to do as you say, make the same types of changes, or conform to our bidding is unrealistic. The reality is that we cannot control anyone else.
It is much easier to attempt to control our thoughts, actions, reactions, and behaviors – and make them realistic as well.
- “Why don’t they trust me? I’ve been in recovery for three months now.”
When we feel sorry for ourselves about our past life, our current situations, losses from our use, or all that we need to do now that we are in recovery, we are overlooking other options. We can write about our feelings and this provides a cathartic release.
Some of us are hesitant to talk about our feelings. The benefit of putting our feelings on paper is that it gets them out of us and on paper. Removing them from inside to paper feels less vulnerable to some.
I write the old school way for my journal. It engages me more than on my computer. I also added the visual release of emotions by using pens in different colors. Try writing in different colors to emphasize your emotions for that day.
- Write in red if you are angry.
- Write in blue if you are sad.
- Write in green if you are jealous or envious.
I cried as I wrote some things – the misspent time using when my daughters were small; time I would never recapture, yet through the writing, I found release and did not relapse. I could also see attitudes and actions that I did not want to repeat in my recovery, so this writing provided several lessons as well as release.
6. Too Much – Money, Time or Too Little Structure
Having too much too soon, can set us up for becoming cocky or complacent. This does not mean that we need to suffer in our early recovery, however, some people process the benefits they receive as what they are “owed” for not using.
Without a solid foundation in recovery, we may falsely think that these early rewards are of our own making, when sometimes it is the graciousness of others that give us these rewards.
Not using is a benefit in itself and needs to be valued for its own worth.
Too much time without productive activities means that some of us will spend it in our heads, obsessing, or thinking about things and not doing anything about the situations.
We obsess about our past, our future, anything but the present moment. Rather than this, try volunteering, chair a meeting, reach out to someone with less time than you and buy him or her coffee.
When there are extra funds, it is a good time to think of others who are struggling financially or are not in a place to buy a six-dollar cup of coffee. I started donating to a soup kitchen at about six months and eventually increased my donations as I learned to budget and made more money.
Research online for time management templates to help structure the time; it will be necessary to find ways to fill the time that we usually spent waiting for a phone call, our drugs to be ready, or incarcerated with our lives literally on-hold.
Other people try to fill each moment and become overwhelmed with all they scheduled. Learning about valuing and managing time can relieve some of the stresses.
Whether it is a calendar on a computer or the paper variety, seeing where you spent your time, energy and effort can help you stay in balance.
7. Unresolved Issues
There are several types of issues ranging from childhood abandonment, sexual abuse, PTSD, or neglect. For some people, how they behaved in their use creates shame and guilt; two emotions that people relapse over when they do not have support or other coping skills.
Drugs and alcohol masked or numbed many of the associated feelings about these unresolved issues, and many people find it helpful to seek professional help for them.
Communities often offer free or fee scale services for sexual abuse survivors, PTSD groups, or other forms of therapy. In our recovery, we need to find a way to cope with the issues, although it is not easy to face the past. Working with a trained counselor or therapist is safe and can help resolve some of the issues.
Mindful of the Thinking Triggers
People mistakenly think that triggers are a sign that they are doing something wrong; however, they are the typical, random thoughts and attitudes that happen to everyone in recovery at some point.
When we are mindful of our personal triggers, we are not as likely to be taken by surprise when they occur. But if we are not ready for them, they can develop into a larger problem and become the basis for a relapse.
For many of us, the problematic thinking starts weeks or months before a relapse; a fleeting thought that can continue to grow if we do not bring it to our consciousness and look at it. We may start embellishing on the original idea and magnify it out of proportion.
When we start being mindful of our thinking, we learn to manage and cope with the original thoughts and this mindfulness can forestall a relapse.
When we value our recovery, we create methods and exercises to protect it, rather than avoiding an uncomfortable and new challenge when examining our thoughts for triggers possibly leading to relapse.
Solutions Worked Then – They Do Now
Granted, the solutions that I use at twenty-eight years differ from those that I used when I had twenty-eight days. However, there are fundamental aspects of early recovery that I still take part in, even if the focus for those actions has changed.
When I returned from treatment in 1988, my employer mandated me to attend two recovery support meetings a day or I would lose my job. It seemed a small price to pay to keep my job.
While I still attend meetings, it is as much to take part in a celebration, catch up with people I worked with over the years, or to see people who helped me early in my recovery.
That doesn’t mean that I don’t receive guidance at a meeting. The lessons I take away are more about reinforcing what I need to do or not do, and not specific directions on what to do next. This shift in motive for attending means that I still find value in the recovery support meetings, it’s just that some of my focus has changed.
However, if I thought that I would not hear anything of interest, or that I was the only one with anything worthwhile to say, or that there was nothing new in recovery, I might want to reconsider my motive as I could be a little complacent. When we notice these things about our thinking or our attitude, it is vital that we do something that removes that smug attitude.
Writing, and recovery heals the heart