While several of the cognitive distortions I am going to talk about directly relate to most alcoholics and addicts, this cognitive distortion may not relate to everyone. I never knew this was something in which I partook until my therapist pointed it out to me. It came up in one of my therapy sessions when I mentioned how I felt like a failure because I couldn't moderate my drinking. My therapist pointed out all the other areas in my life where it was clear I was not a failure. My response was, "Yeah, but that's different." Why? Why can I consider myself successful in some areas of my life and not others? My therapist asked me why I felt I was a failure due to my inability to moderate my drinking. I replied, "Because I keep trying to do it and I keep failing, therefore, I am a failure." She actually laughed at me. Not in a mean way, but in a, oh we have some things to discuss, kind of way. What became clear to her was still very foreign to me.
It had to be all or nothing, plain and simple
The reason my therapist laughed was that she finally picked up on one of my go-to cognitive distortion techniques which suddenly made things more clear for her. She began to see how I tend to see things in black and white, all or nothing, good and bad. This is a cognitive distortion called, polarizing. The polarized thinker does not see the subtleties between the two extremes. They generally see one extreme or the other. Polarized thinkers use words like always, never, everything, and nothing. Polarizing generally originates from a victim mentality. The person thinks everything is happening to them personally. The things a polarized thinker sees happening to them are almost always negative.
I used polarizing in many aspects of my life and especially with my addictions. As I stated earlier, I believed I was a failure because I was unable to moderate my drinking. This is a perfect example of this cognitive distortion. Interestingly, many of the distortions, while different, work off the same principles. For example, my inability to see anything other than my failure with drinking is much like the filtering distortion. There are many other areas of my life I have succeeded in, but I was not able to see those, just the fact I could not moderate my drinking. Therefore, I am a failure. If I took the time to acknowledge my disappointment with not moderating and then focused on things I have done well, I would not so easily be able to call myself a failure. I couldn't because there is sufficient evidence to the contrary. Nevertheless, until we make this connection, it is hard to see beyond what our mind wants us to see.
Tapering off was not acceptable to me because in my mind,
it was a half-assed attempt
Polarizing worked against my desire to quit drinking too. Once I made the realization I needed to fully quit drinking, I was unable to see anything other than that as a possible solution. When my therapist brought up the idea of tapering off my drinking, I could not conceive of such a thing. It had to be all or nothing, plain and simple. This worked heavily against me because the moment I was unable to quit drinking or using nicotine, I saw myself as a failure once again. Tapering off was not acceptable to me because, in my mind, it was a half-assed attempt.
Another example of this way of thinking was my inability to ration alcohol or nicotine. When I was in the military, there were many times when I got stuck out at sea with not enough nicotine to get me through the trip. I had two choices. One, I could ration the nicotine I had and stretch it out over the time I had left at sea. Or two, I could say screw it and use as much as I wanted until I ran out and then grin and bear the rest of the deployment. What do you think I chose? The latter, of course. I could not ration because it felt like cheating myself. I either wanted to do it all or nothing, which is what I did and then I ended up suffering for a couple of weeks without my vise. How silly is this way of thinking? Silly or not, however, it was the way my mind worked because of my polarized way of thinking.
Wouldn't it make sense the extreme thoughts are due to the
depressive nature of the poison we are ingesting
As a creative person, I have dabbled in many forms of artistic expression. I have attempted to write, make music, do photography, and several other forms of art. Each time I embarked on a venture of artistic expression, I did so with fervor and passion. This is how I approach most things, which consequently falls in line with polarizing as well. Nevertheless, my passion for the artistic medium I was creating was unstoppable until I received some bad criticism. When someone made a negative comment about my work, I shut down and immediately started to question my ability. From there, I would talk myself out of continuing for fear of failing. In my mind, it was better to not try than to try and fail. I either had to be great at something or not do it at all. This is the epitome of polarized thinking.
I sometimes wonder if the all-or-nothing mentality is partly due to the cloudiness in our brains from drinking and other toxic chemicals. We subconsciously know we don't have much time left so we want it all now. I am joking, kind of, but seriously, polarizing thoughts generally originate from a negative place and have negative connotations. Wouldn't it make sense the extreme thoughts are due to the depressive nature of the poison we are ingesting? How else do you explain a person's reasoning behind calling themselves a failure after messing up something like a job interview? They are not a failure, they may have failed at something, but that certainly does not justify the label of failure. What about thoughts of always screwing up? Is this truly the case or did a person screw up a few times and then only concentrate on those mistakes? I am asking these questions because I want you to think a little bit about why we do the things we do. As addicts, for the most part, the answer is almost always because of our addictions.
The difference now is I am able to recognize my polarizing thoughts
and adjust my perceptions to accommodate a better outcome
Here's the deal. Since I quit drinking and using nicotine, I do not live in an all-or-nothing place anymore. Recently, my partner pointed out how open I have become to criticism of my writing. In the past, well let's just say I quit writing for almost seven years due to criticism. Now, I can hear someone critique my thoughts and writing, and guess what? I listen, I learn, and I try to enact what I have learned in the future. I have grown more in the past year in my writing than I have in the past 49 years of my life. Why? Because I am not letting a poisonous chemical run my thoughts, emotions, and actions. I am able to take each moment as it comes and I am able to process those moments with clarity. Polarizing is an extreme answer to our body's response to flight or flight from the shit we inject into it. Let go of the toxins and the body and mind will react accordingly.
In full honesty, I am not going to say I never participate in polarizing thoughts anymore. It still happens occasionally. Recently, after two months of losing my workout routine and healthy eating habits due to a chaotic football season, I was worried I would NEVER get back to my healthy routine. Well, football season is over and I have already begun to get back into my routine. The difference now is I am able to recognize my polarizing thoughts and adjust my perceptions to accommodate a better outcome rather than let those extreme thoughts run amuck. You all know of what I mean in regard to thoughts running amuck. It's the addict's emotional playground. Well, no more. I keep my thoughts out of that dangerous area and instead focus my thoughts on a place of equilibrium within my heart and soul. Like everything else we learn in recovery and throughout sobriety, it takes practice to retrain the way we think, the way we believe, and the way we perceive. Be patient, don't expect everything to happen overnight. It will happen, as long as you are able to keep your focus between the extreme edges of your thoughts.
We are all worth much more than the extremes of our negative thoughts
The next time you hear yourself say something like never, always, everything, or nothing; take a moment to ask yourself one simple question: Is what I am feeling right now really true? Or, am I just being overly dramatic? Chances are, if you are honest with yourself, you will immediately see your hyperbole is only that, a hyperbole. It is not the truth. It does not define you. It is only a momentary feeling of frustration and now that you are aware of it, you can simply disregard it and get back to your badassery. Be kind to yourself and others. We are all worth much more than the extremes of our negative thoughts.