Cognitive Sobriety



My whole life, I lived under the assumption that our thinking affects our emotions and our emotions affect our behaviors. For example, I got fired from my job, therefore I must be incapable. Thinking I am incapable makes me feel depressed. I drink because I am depressed: thought, emotion, behavior. I can think of a hundred scenarios where our thinking affects our feelings and therefore our behaviors. Failing a test, making a mistake, someone breaking off a relationship, crashing a car, making bad financial decisions, or any number of scenarios that cause us to question our actions and chastise our own abilities. Once our minds go down that road, there is no stopping how poorly we can think of ourselves. It is in this place we believe we need something to make us feel better. It doesn't matter why we found alcohol, or why we decided it helped us feel better, once we did it was true. What would it mean if our behaviors had the ability to affect the way we think and feel, too?

Since I quit drinking, I have been trying to understand more about why we do the things we do. It might be fair to ask me the question: if you have had such a successful sober journey, why not just be grateful for that gift and enjoy your life? I guess I would have to say, since I quit drinking, I have glimpsed my potential. What I have glimpsed is a world much larger than any I have ever seen. While I have made many positive changes since letting go of my addictions, I feel I have only scratched the surface to the extent of which I am capable. I have to learn as much as I can and push myself as far as I can until I have reached my fullest potential. At this point, it's not even an option.


The power of Behavior


One of the most salient things I have learned recently is how much power is hidden in our behaviors. I do not mean this in the sense that our behaviors have long-lasting and far-reaching consequences, even though they do. I mean this in the sense that our behaviors have the power to adjust our thinking in order to justify our behavior. That may sound a little counter-intuitive but bear with me. Let's go back to the scenario of losing my job. In the past, I would have thought the reason for losing my job (thought) caused me to drink (behavior). While this may, to some extent, be true, there is more to the story. We have to look at the bigger picture. If I have adopted alcohol as something I need to feel better, I have undoubtedly had negative thoughts surrounding my drinking. Whether it was after a bad hangover (I am so stupid, why did I drink so much?) or after doing something I regretted while drinking (I am such an idiot, why did I do that?), negative thoughts have crossed my mind about my drinking. Naturally, I do not like the idea that my drinking is a bad thing, it does not feel good to me, so I have to change the way I think in order to justify my behavior.


We have all experienced a scenario where our behaviors made us feel bad or think poorly of ourselves. As addicts, this is a common occurrence. If I made an ass out of myself at a party because I was drunk, I will certainly feel embarrassed and sorry the next day once I realized what I have done. How many times have you apologized for something you have done while drinking? I know there are too many for me to count. Let me ask another question. How many times have you changed your behavior while drinking because you truly felt sorry for what you have done in the past? If we apologize for our behavior, doesn't that mean we are truly sorry? Or, does it mean something else. Knowing it is socially appropriate to apologize for something does not mean we truly believe we need to apologize for it. In our minds, it is quite easy to downgrade the severity of our actions by simply saying these overly used and horribly misappropriated words, "I was drunk." Those words are generally followed by something like, "What's the big deal?" In our minds, we view alcohol as the culprit, not our actions because we NEED to feel better about what we did and it is easier to blame the alcohol than ourselves.


In the scenario of losing my job, I may begin to adjust the narrative to suit my need to feel better about my drinking. For example, instead of taking ownership of my mistakes and learning from them, I choose to blame someone or something else for my loss of employment. By doing this, I take away my power over the situation and place it in someone else's hands. This allows me to feel wronged. If I was wronged, it is certainly acceptable to drink because I had no control over what happened to me. I was a victim. This feels much better than the alternative: I am drinking because I did something stupid. I mean, everybody knows two wrongs don't make a right, right?


In these scenarios, we change our thinking in order to justify our actions.


The power of thought


The idea that our behavior can modify our thinking hit me hard, but then, it got me thinking. If my thoughts can change my behavior and my behavior can change my thoughts, then I have doubled my ability to make positive changes. I used to think I HAD to change the way I thought in order to change my behavior. For example, I thought I had to change the way I thought about alcohol in order to not want to drink. While this is true and for all intents and purposes was what I did to quit drinking, there was more occurring in the background of which I was not even aware. Let's flip this around a little. What if my not drinking could change the way I thought about alcohol? I have to be open to it, but there is no question once I quit drinking I immediately begin to see the benefits associated with sobriety. I know I feel better, remember more. lose weight, hold less regret, sleep better, and a myriad of other benefits attributed to not drinking. I know these things the moment I quit drinking, but do I believe them? Does that knowledge help me stay the course?


This is where the power of thought comes into play. I can know it is not smart for me to take out a loan and pay twenty-five percent of my income every month on a sports car, but if I want that sports car more than I want to have financial freedom, guess what? I am car broke. Sobriety is very similar. I can know the incredible benefits of not drinking, but if I want the drunk more than I want the benefits of not drinking, guess what? I will choose drunk every time. What is the most important aspect of this entire dilemma? Choice.


A lot of people are opposed to the idea of choice in regard to addiction. Doesn't this aversion apply directly to what I am speaking to here? If I am addicted to alcohol and I don't like my addiction, it doesn't feel good to know I have the choice to quit, so I convince myself alcohol addiction is out of my control, it is not a choice. I am sorry, but from my personal experience and from the knowledge I continue to gather I have no choice but to believe choice is very much a part of addiction. I will concede there are levels to everything, including addiction. There may be a point where addiction has truly left a person feeling they have no choice, but I am speaking more to those who are struggling with their addiction. I say struggling because if you are at the point where you feel you have no choice, you are most likely not struggling with your addiction any longer. You have submitted to it and given up. If you are struggling with your addiction, then you know there are options and choices available to you. That is the struggle.


Putting it all together


What does all of this mean? It means a lot. Not only do we have to be aware our thoughts control our behaviors, but we have to also be aware that our behaviors can unknowingly change the way we think too. The further we push away from what we know to be good for us, the more we find ways to justify why we do not make the changes necessary to live more fully. If you are reading this blog, a member of a sobriety group, making attempts to quit drinking, asking yourself why it is so hard to quit, feeling frustrated with your progress, or simply sober curious, you are struggling on some level with your drinking or addiction which means you are aware you have choices available to you. Give yourself a lot of credit for that awareness. The next step is to change the way you think or to change your behavior to affect the way you think and your world will begin to change in ways you cannot imagine.


I know I make it sound easy. You might say if it was easy everyone would do it. I would like to challenge that way of thinking. I would like to challenge you by saying it can be easy, and the reason more people don't do it is that they don't know that it can be easy. It has been easy for me, it has been easy for my wife, it has been easy for many other people out there, and it can be easy for you too. All of the answers are already inside you. You can change the way you think in order to change your behavior. You can change your behavior in order to change the way you think.


You can change if you want to change, but you have to want a positive change more than you want the negative behavior. That, unfortunately, may be the most difficult aspect of your journey. Fortunately, once you truly choose a positive change over the negative behavior, the rest has the potential to fall easily into place.


If, you believe it.

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