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Denial; the Unconscious Thoughts of an Addict Simplified

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"Cognitive Dissonance" is defined as a great feeling of psychological discomfort produced by the presence of thoughts & behaviors that are conflicting in nature.  The theory suggests that if individuals act in ways that contradict their beliefs, then they typically will change their beliefs & thoughts to align with their actions.  In a nutshell, humans have a difficult time admitting to others but even more to themselves that they were wrong about something.  If you've ever told a lie and felt uncomfortable because you see yourself as scrupulously honest, then you've experienced cognitive dissonance.


It occurs whenever your view of yourself clashes with your performance in any area—you see yourself as smart but can't believe you made such poor decisions.  Cognitive dissonance often occurs because people fear appearing foolish or ignorant.  They are fully aware they have acted in a way that is either inappropriate or uncharacteristic with their belief system or morals, and so they use different strategies to protect their image to others, but even more so to protect their own self-image.  It is hypocrisy between what we believe in and what we engage in. 


When this internal conflict is present, people feel increasingly guilty or uneasy about holding these opposing cognitions – they don’t want to think of themselves as illogical or inconsistent. These internal conflicts are hard to live with, and if not dealt with the individual will feel bad about themselves and this can snowball into further and continuous illogical behaviors/actions and then cause very severe and damaging feelings towards one's self. 


An easy example of this justification of behavior known to conflict with logic is people who smoke cigarettes.  Even though research shows they are shortening their own lives and that cigarette smoking is a primary cause of cancer and many other serious diseases and illness, they answer this cognitive dissonance with thoughts or statements like, “I’ve tried to quit but it's too hard,” or “It’s not as bad as they say, I'm healthy" or "I really enjoy smoking.” Daily smokers justify their behaviors through rationalizations or denial, just as most people do when faced with cognitive dissonance regarding many other behaviors.  Another example is a husband or wife that has an extramarital affair.  They may be religious and hold the value that cheating is wrong, but when they are involved in an affair, they justify it in their own minds with thoughts as "My marriage is falling apart anyway", "I need attention and I don't get enough at home", "I am lonely" and many other justifications to make their thoughts better coincide with their behavior.  Because if one does not alter their own thoughts, their lifelong moral belief that cheating is wrong, would create immense guilt, shame and conflict about their actions, which can be difficult to live with every day; more difficult than simply altering your thoughts on the topic.  We also don’t like to second-guess our choices, even if later they are proven wrong or unwise. By second-guessing ourselves, we suggest we may not be as wise or as right as we’ve led ourselves to believe. In a nutshell cognitive dissonance is denial. 


Another good example of cognitive dissonance in action involves end of the world cults. Members of these groups will be fully convinced that divine revelation has produced a date for when the world is going to end. When the world does not end as they predicted, many of these individuals still won't abandon the group or the prophecy, though to people not a part of such groups plainly see a reason why they would or should.  Instead, they will adopt a new idea such as the belief that it was their actions that delayed the end of the world. It is easier for them to add further delusions to their beliefs than to accept that they were wrong in the first place. 


People usually run into problems with cognitive dissonance because it can be, in its most basic form, a sort of lie to oneself. As with all lies, it depends on the size of the lie and whether it’s more likely to hurt you in some way in the long run.  Sometimes we’re just plain wrong. Admitting it, apologizing if need be, and moving forward can save us a lot of time, mental energy and hurt feelings, though many people have an extremely difficult time doing this, and tend to naturally continue with negative behaviors, while telling themselves that there is either good reason for doing what we do, or by minimizing the impact of our actions on ourselves and others. 


Evidence indicates that maintaining our emotional stability is much more important to us than sharpening up our perceptions of reality, hence the popular saying amongst those confronted with information that disproves ones own theory or opinion, "It may be true - but I don't believe it!"  This rationalizing doesn't always happen to change how we feel about negative behavior it can also be used in reverse.  Such is the case when people with low self-esteem are given compliments or achieve accomplishments, they will tell themselves that the compliments are not true and they will minimize their accomplishments as being not that big of a deal.  It is an unconscious attempt at maintaining what we think to be true.


How does it relate to Addiction?


Humans are so good at dealing with cognitive dissonance-that deep, nagging internal conflict, by justification, that the process occurs without them even noticing it and it becomes central to one's addiction and the conflict their addiction causes in all of their relationships.  Someone with an addiction is able to believe fully in things that would not make much rational sense to other people. They can also engage in behavior that will be obviously illogical to other people, but that person will believe they have a perfectly rational explanation for this behavior and thus believe that their family/friends are the ones who are being irrational.


This explains why people are able to drink themselves to death even though their family and friends are doing all they can to help. The addict is not being deliberately willful because they believe their own justifications.  This is where cognitive dissonance has serious implications.  People will be willing to increase their own delusional thinking in order to protect their current understanding. This goes a long way to explaining how individuals seem comfortable to hold onto ideas that appear so obviously irrational to other people.  Families often ask the questions, "How can you do this to us?" "How can you do this to yourself", "why are you doing this?" or "why won't you get help?" and these are exactly the questions that one would have when a behavior is clearly irrational & unhealthy, but also questions that an addict will always have an explanation for.  The explanation is more for their own comfort than an attempt to make others understand or comfortable. 


The behaviors a person may engage in during addiction is frustrating to their loved ones because to them it seems obvious that what the person is doing is "wrong", dangerous, hurtful, or could pose a great threat to themselves or those around them.  It is a major point of separation and division between an addict and their family.  There will be a great deal of evidence for how alcohol or drugs is destroying their life, but they will still continue to view these substances as their friend. They can do this by blaming their problems on other factors not connected with the substance abuse. From their point of view they drink too much or use drugs because of the problems in their life. Rather than viewing the addiction & substance of abuse as their enemy they see it as their only real friend; this is denial. The fortunate ones eventually see through their denial and come to realize, usually after experiencing enormous loss and pain, that the substance is the actual problem.


Those who are involved in substance abuse contend with constant dissonance because there is so much compelling evidence for why their drug use is dangerous, that it is impossible for anyone to rationally argue against the dangers. The individual is likely to be aware of this but they will overcome the conflict by either giving up the substance abuse, changing their opinion of substance abuse so that the behavior appears less dangerous, or the individual can also adapt a new idea that will help them escape the dissonance. For example, they might accept that substance abuse causes damage to other people, but they can handle it and so are not in danger.  The outcome of cognitive dissonance in the addict’s life include the idea that people who do not abuse alcohol or drugs are boring or in lacking character, the conviction that substance abuse is a sign of artistic depth, holding the belief that people who give up an addiction experience a life of deprivation and that such individuals can never really be happy.  Those addicts who can see how their substance abuse is causing problems will also hold onto the idea that the good times will one day return rather than continuing to get worse, and the conviction that life is miserable and the only comfort is alcohol and drugs.  Another common justification for an addict is that their drug or alcohol use is their "medication" and is the only thing that "works" for their ailments, anxiety, pain, depression, etc.  Having a rationale for your behavior makes what you want to do seem the right thing to do - even if it really isn't. 


Cognitive dissonance can be highly dangerous because it means that people are able to hold onto ideas and beliefs that may be causing destruction in their life.  The individual is able to justify poor decisions, if people do not learn from their mistakes they are doomed to keep repeating them.  This makes it easy for one group of people to turn another group into the enemy, which is not uncommon with addicts who turn against their own families and see the people who care about them the most as people who are trying to harm them.  The individual only hears what they want to hear and may be willing to go to extremes to protect their fallacious thinking.  The dangers associated with cognitive dissonance can make life miserable for the individual and those around them.  If you are a recovering addict, a professional who treats addicts or a family member of an addict then this will by now, sound all too familiar to you because cognitive dissonance is the fundamental coping mechanism that addicts use throughout active addiction, and often can follow them into recovery as well. 


Once someone has managed to overcome their addiction it doesn't mean that they are immune to the internal battle of cognitive dissonance. This type of thinking often becomes a natural way of coping with conflicting beliefs and behaviors, and so can continue to plague someone in recovery and lead to problems such as an individual going off track in their recovery or relapsing.  When a relapse or setback does occur, one can create justifications for this just like one can justify active addiction. This can mean that they develop what is very commonly known as dry drunk syndrome, when an alcoholic/addict removes the substance from their lives due to undeniable consequences, but still has the thoughts of an active user, continuing to  live daily in anger & misery, often making everyone around them  miserable too.  People can be heading towards relapse, but cognitive dissonance enables them to ignore the warning signs, minimizing behaviors or choices that they know have led them to relapse in the past.  Another way this is seen in recovery is when going from a long time of substance abuse where your life revolves around one particular thing, to the absence of what is central to your life; you are prone to going from one type of maladaptive behavior to another.  This is seen often that although a new obsession is far less dangerous, an addict in recovery can still nonetheless become consumed by a new focal point.  It comes easy and may even come off as defensive for a person in recovery to invent all types of beliefs or excuses to justify a new obsession or habit, just like they did with their old one.


In order to avoid this cognitive dissonance from interfering in your recovery, something that can help is to engage in activities where you are constantly learning new things. This causes you to briefly put aside your current beliefs and opinions to consider new information clearly.  Even reading, which seems a simple activity to recommend, is a healthy way of expanding your critical thinking skills, possibly encouraging you to question your beliefs about a particular topic.  It is important for people to not associate their self worth with their beliefs and opinions, otherwise if information is presented that conflicts with your opinions, you are likely to become offended and defensive which will lead to guilt and poor self-image.  Just because one of your opinions turns out to be flawed does not mean that you as a person are inherently flawed.
The model most often used is to try and get people to understand their current attitudes and behaviors, the costs involved in holding these particular attitudes or engaging in the negative behaviors, role playing, exercises and homework design to help a person to become more aware and constantly challenge the attitudes and behaviors, and self-affirmation exercises. Traditional cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) techniques help one to explore the deeper roots of such conflicts. 
Exactly how we choose to resolve the dissonance, and its discomfort, is a good reflection of our mental health. In fact, cognitive dissonance can be a great opportunity for growth, if one recognizes the conflict.













Erika Cormier, author of  the memoir, "As the Smoke Clears", understands first hand that addiction isn't always a "visible" disease.  She has dedicated her life to helping other women suffering from addiction and has drafted a bill to place caps on the high cost of outpatient addiction-related services.

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