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Discounting the Positive | A Corroding Cognitive Distortion

Discounting the positive is a cognitive distortion where you never give credit to yourself for positive things and see yourself as only negative.

Essentially, you’re taking positive experiences and either making them negative or saying they “don’t count” for some reason that usually has no basis in reality.

“Cognitive distortion” is a term used for beliefs (that are not based on the truth) that lead to faulty perception. Cognitive distortions tend to always have a negative undertone, which is pretty obvious in the term “discounting the positive.”

Addicts (like myself) usually have an overactive mind. I would say that the majority of people in today’s society have a constant running dialogue going in their heads.

Here in the western world, it’s ingrained in us that hard work and money equals success. That’s why people (addicts in particular) struggle with being in the present moment.

We’re all running around thinking that if we just work hard enough and accumulate enough wealth we will be happy in the “future.”

I say this all because I think this “western” mindset is a breeding ground for both cognitive distortions and addiction in general. Put cognitive distortions and addiction together and… well… you get a big ol’ mess, that’s for sure.

In this article, you’ll read about the cognitive distortion known as “Discounting the Positive,” and how it pertains to addicts.

What Is Discounting the Positive?

So ladies and gents, what does the cognitive distortion discounting the positive look like? Well, it’s seeing the glass as half empty, which addicts do extremely well.

We get exactly what we want. What do I mean by this? Low self-esteem, feeling dumb or stupid, constantly feeling judged: these are things addicts walk around with either in their addiction or in sobriety (especially early sobriety) unless it’s addressed with methods like the 12 steps and therapies like dialectical behavioral therapy.

When someone has core beliefs about themselves they literally look for situations to reinforce these beliefs. This is mostly done subconsciously.

I’ll give you an example. If a very attractive girl takes interest in me and wants to start hanging out on a regular basis, then I become very skeptical. We may go on several dates, but twice she canceled on me at the last minute saying she had to work late.

I say to myself, “Oh I know that she went on all these dates with me, but that’s probably because she felt sorry for me. Those two cancellations prove how she feels and what she really thinks of me. She thinks I’m an unattractive loser.”

By discounting the positive I’ve turned this situation into a for-sure confirmation that what I believe about myself is true.

Thus, I’m getting what I want, get it? I’m looking for anything to affirm my beliefs about myself. 

It’s kind of like the law of attraction, and like I said, I am mostly doing this subconsciously unless I’ve started to do some work around this which I will talk about here shortly.

Here’s the deal. We aren’t worried about things because we think we will always fail. We are afraid of our light, of how powerful we are. What happens if we succeed at whatever we’re doing? That is a scary thought for many and is why we discount the positive.

Particularly with addicts, success is scary, because now we are headed into unfamiliar territory. We like to stick to what we know, and succeeding is not it.

What if by succeeding we had to continue to succeed?

We are not afraid of the dark.

We are afraid of the light.

What Are Cognitive Distortions?

Do we ever take the time to step back and take a look at our own mind? Did you know that there is a space that exists behind your mind?

Most people believe they “are” their thoughts. Thoughts are powerful, especially for addicts. 

That’s why, according to the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, we start our morning with a prayer asking our High Power to direct our thinking.

Thoughts create beliefs about ourselves that impact our emotional well-being. These beliefs lead to actions, and when the same actions take place over and over again, they become a behavior.

Cognitive distortions like personalization or overgeneralization usually have negativity as an underlying theme. Incorrect beliefs about the present moment lead to errors in the thinking mind. 

An example of a cognitive distortion would look like this:

You got a 98% on a test you took at school. You are congratulated by your teacher and your fellow classmates. However, you got 2 questions wrong. You proceed to tell yourself, “Oh, all those questions I got right were so easy anyone could do them. I got these other questions wrong, so I’m an idiot.”

That’s why positive affirmations are a great way to get our thinking moving in a healthier direction.

Start saying positive affirmations (such as “I love myself, my life, and all people around me”) many times throughout the day, every day for a week.

Do this and tell me (in the comments section) if it was beneficial or not.

So without further adieu, let’s jump into the cognitive distortion known as discounting the positive.

Discounting the Positive, Addiction, and Recovery

In or out of addiction, cognitive distortions such as discounting the positive affect an addict’s life probably more than most other distortions.

Many addicts are in what I call “victim” mode. They view any positive event as unimportant and irrelevant since they feel as if they don’t deserve anything good in their lives.

Always waiting for the other shoe to drop, people in “victim” mode know for sure important bad things are going to happen to them at some point. They need their victim mentality to be affirmed because that’s where they get their sense of self.

An addict in the grips of their addiction may have gotten a few weeks clean from heroin here and there. They have made progress towards bettering their life and may be very well on their way to starting a journey in sobriety.

This last time they tried to get clean they were able to stay clean for a whole month. They’ve never gotten that many days clean before, but then they have a relapse.

They may say to themselves “None of these times I’ve gotten clean for a few weeks mean anything at all because I keep relapsing. I’m not getting any better. I’m going to keep getting high, and I’ll be a junky forever.”

Here’s another example of discounting the positive:

Let’s say an addict (patient) is in treatment and a counselor tells them they are making progress by attending all of the lectures, but that they need to participate more in the 12 step meetings.

The addict might then say “Showing up to lectures is easy, anyone can do that. Not participating more in the 12 step meetings is more important. That counselor was just being nice to me, he knows I’m really going to fail at this whole recovery thing.”

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what we call self-sabotage 101.

Change Is Scary

The idea of change is scarier than the idea of staying the same for many addicts who are attempting to get sober.

What about an addict in recovery? Most of us addicts are extremists as well as perfectionists. I can’t tell you how many times in meetings I’ve heard sober addicts tear themselves down for not working a perfect program.

I mean it’s unreal how high of a standard we hold ourselves to when we get into recovery.

Let’s say I’m in recovery (which I am). I’m doing everything I know to do: prayer and meditation in the morning, 10th stepping with my sponsor throughout the day, taking people to meetings, participating in meetings in treatment centers, and the like.

However, I get busy at work and have to stay late until midnight taking care of business. I get home and I forget to do my nightly inventory. I haven’t missed one in a long time but I miss ONE.

I may think to myself, “It doesn’t matter how many nightly reviews I’ve been doing — they don’t count anymore. I missed one, which means I’m a total failure.” 

This may sound amusing, but for an addict, this type of thinking leads to self-sabotage and is literally deadly.

Discounting the Positive and Gratitude

Discounting the positive is a cognitive distortion that I deem to be a luxury.

What do I mean by this?

Well imagine this scenario:

It’s your anniversary. You and your significant other are eating at a 5-star restaurant. There is an amazing live jazz band playing. There doesn’t seem to be a cloud on the horizon.

However, your mind starts to drift and think, “The food took way too long to come out after we ordered it. I can’t believe the waiter hasn’t been back to refill my glass with water in over 5 minutes.”

I could keep going, but I think you get the picture.

Discounting the positive is an extremely selfish and self-centered cognitive distortion. It’s a way of looking at things that is completely absent of gratitude.

The root of the troubles an addict has is due to selfishness or self-centered fear. I have also heard the saying that, “a grateful addict will never use.”

I believe this to be true.

By staying in gratitude and trying to be helpful to those around us, we walk the path to freedom from active addiction. Being grateful and being thankful are two different things. 

Gratitude is an action. 

What Can We Do About Discounting the Positive?

There is great news! Discounting the positive is a habitual way of thinking, and guess what… habits CAN be changed!

Change requires work, so there is work involved. You can either dread the work or embrace it. 

Something old has to die so something new can be born.

First, identify the problem. Maybe someone gives you a compliment, and you catch yourself saying something like, “Thanks, but I’m really not that talented.”

This is your chance to ask yourself why you are responding in this way.

Perhaps you feel unworthy of praise or, like we’ve already covered, you’re afraid of accepting the fact that you may have done something well. You have to become aware of why you are engaging in self-sabotage behavior.

Triggers are real, and you need to be on the lookout for them. Is it when something doesn’t go your way when you are dining out, when you receive a compliment, or when you’ve done many things good but can’t celebrate the small victories because of a few minor setbacks?

As you practice awareness, eventually you’ll be able to catch yourself before you commit to this specific cognitive distortion. You can reframe the current situation and react differently. Then, you’ll be on your way to making a good habit.

Discounting the Positive Keeping You Down?

Are you or someone you know struggling with cognitive distortions such as discounting the positive? 

If so, I hope that reading this will have a positive impact on your life and as always, we would love to hear from you!

Leave us a message in the comments about your experience with discounting the positive.

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Michael Palma

Michael Palma is a drug addict in recovery who is passionate about recovery and recently has taken to writing about his own experience, strength, and hope and hopes to share this with as many people in recovery as he can. He has been a professional jazz pianist for over 20 years. He has performed with Wynton Marsalis, Jimmy Cobb (drummer for Miles Davis), Daniel Platzman (drummer for Imagine Dragons), Robert “Sput” Seawright (drummer for Snoop Dogg and Snarky Puppy), Greg Osby, and Terri Lynn Carrington to name a few.