Emotional Reasoning in Addiction – Reclaiming the Brain in Recovery
Emotional reasoning hijacks the ability to think rationally, and it is pervasive in addiction. Emotional reasoning causes one to believe that feelings are facts not just emotions. Consequently, one then acts upon feelings to make decisions.
People who use emotional reasoning inevitably come to erroneous conclusions and beliefs that are called thinking distortions or thinking errors. This kind of thought process assumes If I feel it, it must be true. Such a belief can distance you from objective fact, and leave you, as well as your life, at the mercy of emotions, unable to think rationally.
The Cart Before the Horse
Emotional reasoning can lead us far astray from the facts of situations, and cause us unnecessary conflict and distress. It often reverses the logic of rational thought. For example, if I feel anger when with someone, then I may believe that he or she is the reason I am angry. Or, despite being in too much debt already, if I want a new car, I think I should get one. Another example is: although I have had clinical depression for a long time, I believe I should end my marriage because nothing my spouse does fixes my depression.
Rational thinking would lead us to very different conclusions and choices than the emotional reasoning illustrated above. For example:
- If I am with my spouse and feel angry, I could ask myself when I started to feel angry, where I was, and what was happening. Looking for the origins of the anger, and what triggered it, can help me deal with my spouse in a more realistic and fair way. I may find that the source of my anger has nothing to do with my spouse, but I have made it his or her problem.
- If I want a new car but can’t afford it, I can focus on objective facts. I can look at the savings and checking account. I can add up my monthly expenses and compare that total to my monthly income.
- If I have a depressive illness, I can ask myself am I happy anywhere, in any situation? Is it my marriage or my illness that I should do something drastic about? If both are a problem, which should I take care of first to make sure I give myself, my spouse, and my marriage the best chance I can?
Thinking Distortions and Emotional Reasoning
Thinking distortions are the self-sabotaging and erroneous thoughts we have that are based on irrational and emotional reasoning. Thinking distortions are common in people with addictions. Below are some examples of such thoughts and how they can be based on emotional reasoning instead of rational reasoning:
Denial—denial is the core thinking distortion of addiction. It creates a blind spot in perception so one does not deal with the reality of the addictive illness or its effects. Denial can be based upon fear of seeing one’s dire predicament, or fear that one cannot live without compulsively taking drugs. Denial helps us not think about or even perceive that we have a problem. Consequently, it helps soothe our fears.
Blaming Others—blaming others helps take the focus off our own responsibility. Instead of examining ourselves, our motives, and our behavior, we focus on others in an angry way. If someone wants to talk to us about their concerns for us, we turn the tables and say what about you? You’re no angel! Or, you think I drink too much? If you wouldn’t nag me so much, I could be sober! Blaming helps us avoid the shame, guilt, helplessness, and hopelessness we feel about ourselves and our substance use. We use blaming to divert our attention from those feelings. We also use it to divert others from seeing the broken person we feel ourselves to be.
Victim Thinking—thinking of ourselves as victims takes away our responsibility for how we live. It allows us a ‘free pass’. We can’t be held accountable for what we think, feel, or do because we portray ourselves as helpless and at the mercy of others, circumstances, or even just ‘bad luck’. Essentially, if we have victim thinking we say It’s not my fault I’m this way! Among other things, victim thinking helps us avoid feelings of anxiety that we could use to spur us onto making changes.
Justification—when we use justification, we really say I do what I do because I have good reasons. It is another way of avoiding responsibility, and it also helps us not make efforts to change. Justification serves many emotional purposes. It makes us feel right and righteous, for instance. We don’t have to feel guilty or ashamed for our behavior because we think we acted properly given the circumstance. This thinking distortion can be used to validate breaking any rules we choose.
False Image–thinking we cannot reveal who we truly are, what we really think, or how we really feel is based on fear, anxiety, and shame. We present a false image to others and the world—sometimes even to ourselves—to avoid those feelings. We say what we think others want to hear, or what we think will make them think how we want them to think of us. We stuff down our truth and live behind a mask.
Emotional Reasoning is Immature
It is commonly said that we stop growing at the age our addictions began. Typically, people mean they are emotionally immature for their chronological age if they have been addicted for a prolonged period. When it comes to emotional reasoning, there is a great deal of truth in this popular recovery wisdom.
Emotional reasoning is appropriate when we are youngsters, and as we grow and develop through our teen and young adult years, we learn to use our rational reasoning more often. It takes trial and error, experience, practice, and very literally the right stage of brain development. Not of us get to adulthood having mastered the skill of rational thought, however.
Adults may not have mastered the skills of rational reasoning for many reasons. A common one in people with addiction is that they were traumatized or compromised in some way during critical stages of brain and cognitive development. It is as if they missed those lessons and must catch up. \
Also, substance use impairs us, disconnects pathways to rational thought, or bypasses them all together as addiction progresses. Treatment and recovery efforts after rehab can help us learn what we missed in earlier development. They can also help us ‘rewire’ important neural pathways that were damaged in active addiction. Some of us, depending upon our histories, will learn rational cognitive skills for the first time.
Recovery is Possible
Recovery is possible—no matter how riddled your thinking is with emotional reasoning and no matter what kinds of behavior that type of thinking has led to. However, it takes openness, willingness, and work to heal erroneous thinking. It also takes insight. You have to see your thought process’s contribution to problems in your life.
While you probably won’t heal problematic thought patterns as quickly as you’d like, you can make significant progress all along the way of your recovery process. And, that journey begins with awareness because thinking distortions are tenacious and can be so deeply embedded that we aren’t fully conscious of them.
We have to lay a good recovery foundation for change as we seek addiction recovery. We do that in many realms of our lives, including the mental and emotional. When it comes to emotional reasoning and the problems it causes us, we have to first recognize our specific thought distortions. That can be a painful process, requiring self-reflection and humility. Once we get started, however, the process can get far easier. As a friend of mine says, at first, it’s like getting that first pickle out of a jar. After that, the rest are more accessible. Once you capture a thinking distortion and bring it into the light to examine, you find the rest get easier to pull out, too.
Why Muck Around in Thoughts at All?
That’s an excellent question, and one a great many people in treatment and recovery ask. When you’re ill enough with an addiction to go to rehab, it seems so clear: if the drug use stops, things will be better. Most of us tend to think of withdrawal and detox as setting us straight, and on the path to a better life. It’s natural to think and feel that way. Living with compulsive drug use makes us desperate, and all we can think about is wanting to quit and not being able to. Quitting is the brass ring we all want to grab at that point, and rightfully so.
We have to remember, however, that it takes detox to clear our heads—at least, to begin to clear our heads. The toxic effects of chemical exposure in addiction impair and distort every cognitive process. Our impulses and emotions have been unrestrained by rational thought, and overall, we’ve lost focus, judgment, and self-control. When our substance use stops, and detox has begun to restore our bodies and brains, we can work at other levels of healing that has to be done. First, we save our physical lives, then we go onto sustaining those gains.
To stay in addiction recovery, we have to heal the underpinnings of addictive thinking and addictive behavior. Otherwise, relapse is far more of a possibility than it has to be. Unless, we change self-sabotaging thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors, we will always be at serious risk for returning to the active illness. In short, we have to contain our emotional reasoning and begin to clear that level of our lives, too, if we want the best chance of success we can get. The deeper healing that can sustain us in recovery will reclaim our thinking and literally our brains from toxic effects of chemical exposure.