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How to rethink the language of addiction

An estimated 23 million people in the U.S. meet the criteria for a substance use disorder, but only 10% that actually seek help. Since the preconditions for addictive behaviors include chronic stress, anxiety and depression, millions of people are living lives of quiet desperation. Why do relatively so few people who need help actually seek it? One reason may be that conventional thinking about drugs and alcohol (and how to treat every type of addictive behavior) is disempowering, using deficit-based, and emotionally charged terminology that has negative connotations. This old-school colloquial language scares people away by compounding and reinforcing negative self-talk, stigma and shame. The solution is to rethink and reframe our language to change our self-identity in healthier and more empowering ways. We should view ourselves without the labels that immediately conjure up the worst case scenarios of problematic addictive behavior. We can learn to be self-compassionate, which is more likely to occur when we are interacting with others who are open, receptive, kind, nonjudgmental and empathetic.


Do

Do change the language and your self-talk

Change your internal dialogue by choosing new words to describe yourself. For example, if you have a drinking problem, don’t identify yourself with the colloquial term “alcoholic”. You can reframe your reality by saying you are human being having difficulty coping with your personal life challenges and circumstances, and have learned to cope by drinking alcohol in a problematic way.

Do learn to be self-compassionate

When you have learned to accept labels and a debilitating self-identity mired in shame and stigma, it’s very difficult to feel good about yourself. It is important to be self-compassionate, in the same way as you might care for a friend or a loved one. You are a human being, you are experiencing some degree of distress, and you are with yourself every moment of everyday. Therefore, you are in a sense, your own rehab because you can provide yourself with love, care, and compassion anytime you desire. 

Do think in terms of your behavior as a learned way to cope

Addictive behaviors lie along a continuum and vary by contributing factors, duration and degree of severity. All addictive behaviors serve two primary functions. They reinforce pleasure and remove emotional distress. You learn these reinforcements early in life and they become automatic, unconscious stored responses once triggered. Also, while it is said that “addiction” runs in families, it is also common that these same family environments encompass poor modeling behavior, emotional instability and poor coping skills. 

Do find individuals who model overall positive well-being in their lives

The primary objective for any treatment should be your overall positive well-being. You can achieve positive outcomes by undergoing counseling, taking medication, going to therapy, or participating in groups. Any method you choose should lead to reinforcement of your personal autonomy. You should not maintain and/or transfer one dependency mindset for another. When seeking help, find individuals who will help improve the quality of your thinking, and enhance your authentic sense of fulfillment, satisfaction and equanimity. Find individuals who are open minded, nonjudgmental, kind, compassionate and empathetic and who value and respect your subjective experiences.          

Do identify your triggers and interrupt behavior

You can’t solve a problem until you understand it. Ask yourself, “What’s happening before I make this conscious choice to behave in a certain way?” What are you thinking, feeling and experiencing? If you want to drink or use drugs, ask yourself, “Why do I want to do this right now?” Then try to immediately replace that behavior with a better alternative. For example, if you desire a drink because you feel stressed and anxious, embrace these feelings as a red flag indicating that you now have the opportunity to self-reflect and redirect yourself. Being mindful of your thoughts and feelings can help interrupt your normal automatic responses to them. Instead of the learned coping behavior of grabbing a drink, go for a long walk instead. By learning to become more mindful, you will recognize your triggers and you will be able to pause and interrupt the automatic responses you have learned to use as a way to cope. You can then begin replacing them with healthier alternatives like exercise, meditation, self-reflection, listening to music, laughing or reaching out and speaking with someone who models positive well-being. Eventually you will be able to break the pattern of your undesirable behaviors and increase your responsive potential with healthier and more desirable alternatives.


Don't

Do not label yourself or let anyone else label you

“Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” This old adage needs to be retired. Names and labels stay with you for your entire life; these labels also may become a self-fulfilling identity. Words are powerful. If you exhibit addictive behavior, you are experiencing chronic stress, depression and anxiety. Generally, your personal narrative is already very negative and undermining. Don’t add unhelpful labels to the mix.

Do not think in terms of all-or-nothing

Thinking, believing and behaving is variable and fallible. It’s important to realize that as human beings we can’t make ourselves (or anyone else) do anything unless we want to. For example, someone may use criticism, coercion, and confrontation in order to ‘break’ your addiction and put you on a path to abstinence. Such external character attacks, however, do not influence and encourage you to change your behavior, something you must still decide to do. You do not need to view desired outcomes simply as black and white (e.g., either abstinence or addiction). There are many shades of gray.

Do not feel stigmatized or shamed

One of the reasons for medicalizing addiction by referring to it as a “disease” was to remove the stigma and shame many associate with it. But the language itself used to describe and label people does just that by attaching terminology which is deficit-based and emotionally charged with negative connotations. If you are already experiencing negative self-talk, internalizing this language can reinforce and maintain your problems.

Do not believe you are powerless

Even a person who chooses to be abstinent is making a conscious choice. This effort regardless of the treatment approach, demonstrates an individual’s power not powerlessness. Any terminology which is disempowering inhibits overall positive and subjective well-being.

Do not believe there is something outside your own thinking controlling or possessing you

It’s important you to take personal responsibility for your own subjective experiences. Conventional addiction thinking became necessary to standardize and provide a common language. But simply reducing behavior to biology or to something possessing people, undermines what it means to be human. The reality is, at the end of the day, life is a series of choices from which we can learn to grow and evolve.


Summary
Jumping cartoon

People are human beings first, with any form of an addictive behavior second. In addressing your addictive behavior, changing the language of addiction to acknowledge your humanity and the reality of your unique subjective life experiences is vital. Seek the right kind of help for your problematic behaviors. By reframing the behaviors as learned coping responses triggered by environmental stressors, you will be more likely and able to learn how to view yourself with self-compassion. This will empower you to take personal responsibility, learn new ways to cope, and improve the quality of your thinking, which will in turn enhance your overall positive well-being.


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Photo Credits: Deep in Thought by Ryan Holst via Flickr; Check Man, Cross Man and Jump Man © ioannis kounadeas - Fotolia.com

Tony BevacquaEducator and coach

Tony Bevacqua is an accomplished educator, corporate coach, social advocate and lecturer. He teaches college psychology courses, leads corporate wellness seminars and has a private coaching practice in Los Angeles. ...

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