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Personalization | A Cognitive Distortion That Makes Addiction Worse

This is the 2nd article in our cognitive distortion series, which will address the cognitive distortion personalization as it pertains to addiction.

(If you haven’t yet, check out the first article on overgeneralization.)

Probably 90% of addicts have a negative internal dialogue. Chances are that if you’re reading this, you or someone you know is an addict (I use the word addict as a term that also includes alcoholics).

You may be thinking “Oh big deal! Everyone has negative thoughts, but they don’t mean anything and don’t affect me.” 

Well, cognitive distortions (which refer to terms used for specific types of negative thinking) can keep an addict in active addiction from seeking help. It can also completely derail an addict who is sober and in recovery. 

In this article, you’ll learn about the cognitive distortion personalization and how it pertains to a person dealing with substance abuse disorder.

What is the Personalization Cognitive Distortion?

Personalization or personalizing is a cognitive distortion where a person believes that they are responsible for an event that they have very little or no control of.

The individual jumps to conclusions without assessing the situation and blames themselves for the event, which leads to feelings of guilt. This guilt is completely unwarranted, but it can gravely affect a person.

As you all know, I’m an addict. The first memory I have of this type of thinking was when my parents separated and ultimately got divorced. I was hardly aware of it at the time, but I had a core belief that this was my fault.

I know that when one parent wouldn’t allow me to do something I would usually go directly to my other parent, where I would get a different response.

I’m sure these led to disagreements between my parents, but it for sure was not the entire cause of the dissolution of their marriage — this is an example of me committing the cognitive distortion personalization.

I had literally no control over whether they got a divorce or not, but nonetheless, personalization led to a core belief. Subconsciously I began to believe that I was somehow bad, which has no doubt played a part in me beginning to abuse drugs in the first place. 

What Are These Cognitive Distortions of Which You Speak?

Cognitive distortions are incorrect faulty beliefs that influence and ultimately dictate our perception. Cognitive distortions have negativity as a running theme.

These beliefs exist on an unconscious level, which means they are influencing people’s perceptions without them even knowing it. However, these unconscious beliefs are able to be seen in the form of thoughts, emotions, behaviors, and physical reactions.

The crazy thing is that over the years cognitive distortions like personalization become ingrained in an individual.

At this point, a person is unable to see that their faulty perception and negative behavior is causing any problems in their life. This is particularly true of addicts.

For instance, a parent who is addicted to heroin is unable to see that shooting up before driving their kids to school is an issue.

This behavior is justified so the addict can continue to use. They may actually believe that the heroin is helping them to stay calm and drive better, which makes for a safer trip to school.

To bring cognitive distortions to an addict’s attention, and to show them how much it’s affecting their behavior, a trusted peer, a therapist, or even the legal system has to intervene.

Personalization | A Common Cognitive Distortion in Addicts

In general, addicts are astonishingly self-centered, self-absorbed, and selfish (the only way this diminishes is if an addict is involved in recovery).

That being said, addicts are also extremely sensitive and take things really personally (this makes sense since addicts pretty much just think about themselves all the time).

Personalizing is no stranger to the “everything is my fault” addict mentality. Perhaps an addict’s child is on a field trip and somehow falls and breaks their arm.

The addict blames themselves, saying, “This is totally all my fault. If I wouldn’t have let little Jimmy go to school today, then they wouldn’t have gotten hurt. I can’t deal with this — I’ve got to get fucked up.”

Or here’s an example of an addict taking something super personally. Let’s say you’re the addict in this scenario. Your neighbor may be talking to you about something, like how they don’t allow their children to be outside after dark.

You take this as a direct attack on the way in which you raise your children. What was a casual conversation has literally started a war in your mind. If you’re an addict, you’ll relate to this all too well!

Taking things personally can lead to deep resentment towards people. The Big Book says that resentments “fancied” or real have the power to kill.

Fancied is a great word here because it refers to something that was completely manufactured in someone’s head but has no basis in reality.

Nonetheless, this resentment stuff is big trouble for an addict. Resentment is guaranteed to keep an addict in active addiction. It can also cause an addict in recovery to relapse.

Reframing and “the Courage to Change the Things I Can”

It’s quite amazing how much our thoughts create our reality. So many people think that they are at the mercy of the world “outside” of themselves, something you can clearly see in the cognitive distortion personalization.

If you do some digging and look at the research, like the kind in the book “The Hidden Messages In Water,” your mind will be completely blown. 

There is tons of proof that molecular structure is altered when observed by human consciousness. Positive and negative thoughts, emotions, and behaviors, such as talking or shouting, literally affect the reality around you.

This book is about how water responds to both negative and positive vibrations. And we all know that we as humans are mostly made up of water, which means… well, you get the picture.

So what do we do about personalization? Well, the first step is to identify the problem/core beliefs and see that we are engaging in personalization. A therapist, peer, or sponsor can help us with this.

The next step is to challenge this core belief. 

When an event takes place and you see how you’re reacting automatically to a situation by personalizing it, you may ask yourself, “Why am I feeling this way? Why am I thinking these thoughts about this situation? Are these thoughts even based in reality? What’s another way I could look at this situation?”

A person/addict can change their perception about a situation and turn it into a positive. By saying something like “I know this situation is a gift to help me grow,” you are turning a bad situation into a complete blessing

This is where the Serenity Prayer really comes alive for me. “The courage to change the things I can” is a huge, empowering statement because we can think differently and perceive things in a better light.

This affects our emotions, which leads to better behaviors that will ultimately shape our entire life and the direction that it’s headed.

For addicts, prayer is essential as it invites a Higher Power into this process of changing perception and stopping cognitive distortions like personalization.

There’s a saying, “You’re going to get where you’re going.” This means we are manifesting our destiny as we speak, so are you going to let your sensitive ego run the show?

Or, are you, along with your Higher Power, going to head in a better direction?

In recovery, an addict’s higher power does the steering, but the addict must do the rowing.

Is Personalization Hindering Your Ability to Succeed?

Leave a message in the comments if you or someone you know is struggling with the cognitive distortion personalization.

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Shanisa Joyner
Shanisa Joyner
3 months ago

Great article!


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.

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