Throughout the course of our lives we develop certain habitual styles of thinking that serve as defenses or distortions of reality, feeding into craving and urges and aiding in the cycle of relapse of addictive behavior.
Defenses and distortions of thought are often unconscious ways of trying to protect ourselves from a painful reality that we don’t want to face. Defenses, or “defense mechanisms,” are automatic mental reactions that serve to protect against uncomfortable or unacceptable thoughts, feelings, and experiences. Commonly known examples are denial and rationalization.
As we become more familiar with these common styles of thinking we can begin to recognize them in any given moment, and as soon as we do, we have stepped out of auto-pilot and are now present to the moment.
In this presence we have the ability to simply notice these as mental events in the mind that come and go and to consciously choose a new direction.
As you listen to the following habits of the mind make a mental checkmark next to the thoughts patterns that sound familiar to you.
The first thought pattern is a defense that most of us have heard of and have probably used at some point in the addictive cycle:
1. Denial: Denial is refusing to accept reality – it is a psychological process that we use to protect ourselves by blocking difficult and painful things from our awareness. For example: “I don’t have a problem with my drinking.”
2. Minimizing: Minimizing is admitting we have a problem with an addictive behavior to some degree but in such a way that makes it seem less serious or significant than it really is. For example: “I only had a few drinks – I was okay to drive.”
3. Rationalizing: Rationalizing is inventing excuses so as to make unacceptable or addictive behavior seem acceptable – the behavior itself is not denied, but an inaccurate explanation is given – For example: “I had a really hard day at work, I needed a drink to chill out.”
4. Intellectualizing: Intellectualizing is a ‘flight into reason’, where the person avoids uncomfortable emotions by focusing on facts and logic; protects against anxiety by repressing the emotions connected with an event.
5. Blaming: Blaming is trying to make other people, places, or things responsible for our behavior – our behavior is not denied but its cause is placed ‘out there’ rather than with ourselves. For example: “You would drink too if you were married to her.”
6. Bargaining: Bargaining is cutting deals or setting conditions for when things will be right to deal with the problem. For example: “I’ll quit drinking after I finish my big project at work.”
7. Catastrophizing: Catastrophizing is when a person assumes that worst possible outcome – which often amplifies anxiety. We look at a situation that we are facing and automatically imagine the worst possible thing that could happen. The mind gets lost in the what if’s game. For example: “If I tell anyone that I drank again I will lose my job, my husband will leave me, and I will out on the street.”
8. All-or-Nothing Thinking: All-or-nothing thinking is when we think that things are either black or white, right or wrong and there is no grey area. If we think this way then it becomes difficult to integrate the uncertainties of life without relapsing. For example: “I can’t believe I had a sip of wine, I am such a bad person and I ruined my recovery.”
In practicing mindfulness, we begin to understand that the words and images in our mind are just mental events that come and go like everything else.
We learn to acknowledge the thoughts or judgments that arise, label them – such as rationalizing or denial, and increase our awareness of the pervasive patterns of defenses and thought distortions that keep us arrested in our addicted behavior.
Mindfulness gives us the mental space or pause to break free from these habits of the mind, empowering us to make a positive change.
To protect ourselves against uncomfortable thoughts, feelings, and experiences, we develop a set of automatic mental reactions called defenses (or defense mechanisms). These mechanisms begin in childhood and are a normal part of development. Defenses protect us (our conscious mind) against painful feelings, thoughts, and situations in our families and lives.
Defenses Protect Against Pain
Defenses protect us from painful realities. They filter out things we may not want to recognize, and they change our perceptions so things feel more comfortable. In a sense, defenses distort reality, and to the extent that they distort reality, they cause problems in everyday functioning, especially in interpersonal relationships. Defenses cause problems because they keep people from coming to a consensus about what is true, or real, or fair. It’s as if we’re speaking different languages.
Defenses and Addiction
Defenses are normal. Everyone has them and uses them, but addicts use them to maintain addictive behaviors and thoughts. As addiction progresses, defenses become more and more powerful and rigid, hiding the worsening consequences of addictive behavior. Part of recovery is looking at reality and taking responsibility for the uncomfortable consequences of our addiction. This often means developing more mature defenses that allow more flexible thinking and more honest and wholesome ways of being in the world.
Defenses come in many different forms. We may close our eyes to the destructive consequences of using, or we may explain our addiction away in an intellectual fashion that saves us from having to feel. Another common defense is blaming, during which we find fault with someone else to avoid looking at our own responsibilities.
The following are common defenses:
- Denial: Refusing to admit or acknowledge that our drinking or using has become a problem. (I can quit any time I want to. My using isn’t that bad.)
- Isolation: Removing ourselves from the company of family and friends for the purpose of maintaining a chemical habit.
- Rationalization: Giving reasons to explain why we drink or use. (I drink because I hate my job.)
- Blaming: Transferring responsibility for our behavior to other people. (I wouldn’t drink if my spouse treated me right.)
- Projection: Rejecting our own feelings by ascribing them to someone else. (Why is that stupid idiot being so hostile?)
- Minimizing: Refusing to admit the magnitude of the amount used. (I only have a couple of drinks. It’s not a problem.)