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cognitive behaviors

What Are Cognitive Distortions & How They Impact Addiction Recovery

Almost everyone struggles with negative thinking patterns, or what doctors call cognitive distortions. These thinking patterns can range from low self-esteem to assuming the worst after a simple conversation with someone. For those in addiction recovery, cognitive distortions can be especially dangerous. These patterns can often increase anxiety and depression, fueling unhealthy behaviors that could lead to relapse. 

What Are Cognitive Distortions?

Various theories point to the origins of cognitive distortions. However, the two most famous approaches go to psychologist Aaron Beck and Dr. David Burns, who helped popularize these negative thinking patterns giving more examples and easy-to-remember names. 

Essentially, these theories believe that we all have biased perspectives on ourselves and the world around us. These are irrational thoughts and beliefs we unknowingly reinforce over time, eventually causing more harm than good. Theories say we develop such distortions to cope with adverse life effects, while others believe they’re part of our evolutionary survival mechanism. 

Regardless of the theory you choose to believe, psychologists and counselors agree that these thoughts aren’t rational or beneficial long-term. 

Common Cognitive Distortions

Everyone has unique cognitive distortions they keep fighting. For someone in addiction recovery, these common negative thinking patterns can increase their anxiety, often triggering depression and relapse episodes. While there are countless distortions, we’ll focus on those made famous by Aaron Beck and David Burns. 


These people will take the negative details of a situation and magnifies those while mental-filtering out any positive aspects. For example, they’ll only point out the negative aspects of someone and entirely disqualify the positive.

Polarized Thinking

This famous black-and-white way of thinking or an all-or-nothing approach to living can be quite dangerous. There’s only perfection and failure; they don’t see shades of gray in life. Most of the time, they’ll place themselves in “either/or” situations and make decisions using this mentality, often acting in extremist ways. 


Those struggling with this distortion will only base their conclusions on a single incident. If something wrong happens once, they expect this to happen over and over again. For example, addicts are prone to struggle with this. If they experience a relapse in their addiction recovery, they might not go back to treatment because they feel it will just happen again. 

Jumping to Conclusions or Mind-reading

Recovering addicts struggle with this distortion as well. This happens when someone jumps to conclusions without really knowing what the other person feels or is thinking about. For example, when they have a job interview, they immediately assume the other person will think the worst of them and self-sabotage their opportunity based on their pre-conclusions. 


This is another way of saying, “assuming the worst.” An example would be thinking that your partner wants to break up with you because they haven’t answered a text message, and thinking that you’ll end up alone.


Personalization happens when someone believes everything others do or say, somehow is a direct reaction to them. Let’s say you’re with a friend who is having a hard day. Personalizing would be assuming that they are in a sour mood because you’ve been a bad or unsupportive friend.

Control Fallacies

This specific distortion involves two beliefs. Both relate to being in control of every situation in someone’s life. In one, we feel externally controlled and see ourselves as helpless victims of fate. In the other one, we feel internal control assuming responsibility for the pain or joy of everyone around us. 

Fallacy of Fairness

Recovering addicts often struggle with this distortion as they feel resentful because they believe they know what is fair, and others around them don’t. For example, they’ll likely blame their addiction on the fact that “life isn’t fair.”


Another popular one among recovering addicts. This happens when someone engages in blaming, holding others responsible for their emotional pain, usually blaming others for every problem they have. 


Everyone struggles with the infamous “shoulds.” These statements appear as ironclad rules we set for ourselves and those around us. When someone breaks these rules, we feel angry, defeated, and even try to punish ourselves. 

Emotional Reasoning

This happens when someone gives full attribution to their emotions. For example, “If I feel that way, it must be true.” Feelings are powerful and can overrule our rational thinking and reasoning. When someone engages in emotional reasoning, they assume unhealthy emotions reflect the way things are. 

Fallacy of Change

Here, someone expects that other people will change to suit them if they pressure them enough. They’re the ones that need to change others because their hopes depend on them. For example, a girlfriend who tries to get her boyfriend to improve his appearance and manners. She believes her boyfriend is perfect if he changes this and will make them happier. 

Global Labeling

This happens when someone generalizes one or two qualities into a negative global judgment about themselves. For example, they may say, “I’m a loser” when they failed at a specific task. Mislabeling can be emotionally loaded and have long-term consequences on someone’s self-esteem. 

Always Being Right

When someone struggles with this distortion, they’ll be on a constant pursuit to put others on trial to prove that their opinions and actions are correct. To someone with this struggle, being wrong is unthinkable, and will go to any length to demonstrate their rightness. 

Heaven’s Reward Fallacy

This is a false belief that someone who sacrifices will eventually pay off as if someone is keeping score. A person who sacrifices and works hard but doesn’t experience the expected payoff will usually feel bitter when the reward doesn’t come.

How to Fight Cognitive Distortions in Addiction Recovery

Beck also developed the basis of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) that can help people struggling with negative thinking patterns. Through this treatment, patients can identify negative thinking patterns and distorted thoughts. The approach also focuses on assisting patients in shifting or reframing thoughts to be more rational and positive. 

Using Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

CBT has additionally been proven effective for people who struggle with depression, anxiety, addiction, and unhealthy behaviors.

In a cognitive-behavioral therapy session, the therapist might try to incorporate various cognitive distortion exercises that can help people change their negative thoughts:

  • Reframing: Patients learn to balance negative thoughts into more positive ones. For example, someone might replace “I am incapable of doing this work” with “I am struggling, but I can ask for help to improve.”
  • Thought records and journaling: Patients also track their thoughts to identify triggers for anxiety or unhealthy behaviors, then work with their therapist to cope with these triggers.
  • Behavioral activation: Patients additionally practice new behavioral habits to shift their mood, which can gradually change thought patterns to be more positive.
  • Core belief work: Patients identify their core beliefs, or ways of looking at the world, to develop insight into their patterns. Additionally, addressing negative core beliefs can reduce depression and anxiety.

The core theory of CBT is that thoughts create feelings, and feelings create behaviors. By replacing negative thoughts, we can increase positive feelings and actions.

For example, someone might experience the impression that they are incapable of sobriety. As a result, this may lead to depression, anxiety, and isolation. Thus, by challenging the negative thought, the individual can reduce the risk of relapse.

Of course, the methods of coping with your distortions will depend on the type of negative patterns you’re struggling with. While it takes time, with the right guidance and support, many can move away from these self-destructive patterns. 

Finding Help

We are all guilty of letting cognitive distortions take over our emotions and beliefs more than once. Unfortunately, these negative thinking patterns can often be so subtle we don’t notice them until someone else points them out. 

There are dozens of recognized distorted thinking patterns researchers believe can be harmful in the long-run. For those in addiction recovery, addressing these distortions may be a matter of life or death. 

At Lighthouse Recovery Institute, we incorporate cognitive therapies to identify cognitive distortions in early addiction recovery. We know how important it is to address the mental health of people struggling with addiction and the positive long-term effects it can have for them in recovery. 

If you believe you might be struggling with negative thinking patterns in your recovery journey, do not hesitate to reach out if you’re reading this. Work with our therapists and counselors to learn the best ways to make a change and start tuning out these unhealthy thinking patterns.

Addiction recovery is a lifelong journey with many ups and downs. Make sure you’re taking the time you need to work on your mental health to help you have the best odds at long-term sobriety and healthy life. 

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