Cognitive Dissonance and Addiction Behaviors
Cognitive dissonance is the tension that is perceived by the conflict of a belief and an opposing desire with which the mind is faced. This inconsistency produces discomfort and anxiety.
We are driven to reconcile those conflicting thoughts, beliefs, and desires or behaviors to preserve harmony in our minds and make ourselves feel rationally better.
Three Ways Individuals Can Resolve the Conflict
- Change the behavior to match more closely to one’s beliefs. The individual just stops doing whatever is causing the dissonance.
- Change the beliefs to match the behavior. Those abusing substances often use this logic.
- Keep the original beliefs but add a new idea that will be acceptable to both the thoughts and the behavior.
People abusing drugs will likely use all three. They claim that they are the exception to the rule, believing they will be able to manage their addiction or have a particularly strong constitution.
Cognitive Dissonance and Addiction
Addiction causes a great deal of cognitive dissonance. The subconscious mind resolves cognitive dissonance by changing the individual’s perception of reality to restore balance as a mental defense mechanism.
Someone spiraling into addiction knows that what they are doing isn’t good for them on some level. Still, they find substance abuse a more comfortable path because it blocks unwanted ideas, feelings, and responsibilities.
They begin to construct a world of lies where their self-destructive behavior is justified. To resolve their conflicts, they rely heavily on defense mechanisms:
The cognitive dissonance is effectively wiped clean by changing how they feel towards their addiction. This allows the convoluted “logic” of addiction to take hold and become the new norm.
Harmful and painful addictive behaviors require a maze of lies, distortions, and psychotic denial to fend off the natural corrective consequences of cognitive and behavioral dissonance resulting from addiction.
One cannot reason with someone on drugs or use logic and data to persuade them out of their distorted reality.
They are willing to increase their own delusional thinking to protect their current addiction. This explains why someone will hold on to beliefs and ideas that are wholly illogical and obviously irrational to others.
When asked why they are doing this to family or to themselves, they always have a ready answer, although it is mostly for their own comfort, rather than for the others to make sense of.
Examples of Cognitive Dissonance
- They feel people who do not abuse substances are boring or lack character.
- Substance abuse is a sign of an artistic or bohemian life.
- Believing that all the talk about the dangers of substance abuse is just propaganda with no basis in reality and that people are just being brainwashed.
- Life is miserable and only substance abuse can make it bearable.
- For those who see that their substance abuse is causing problems, they hold on to the belief that the good times will come back.
- Those who gave up the addiction can no longer lead happy lives and are deprived of any joy.
The defense mechanisms that someone places around themselves to keep cognitive dissonance at bay need to be addressed to start the recovery process.
Many people need to hit personal rock bottom to see through the denial and decide that they’ve had enough. They must be willing to make the change in their lives.
Only when they are ready can they possibly have a chance to see the cognitive dissonance for what it is and the damage their addiction has caused.
This is when the negatives of the addiction, including guilt and shame, can dominate the decisions they make.
The Dangers of Cognitive Dissonance
- The substance abuser will always think they are right. It is challenging to reason with them.
- They will always be able to justify any poor decision they make. And they will always find someone to blame if things go badly or claim it’s bad luck.
- Cognitive dissonance can prevent people from taking responsibility for their life.
- Often, individuals will distrust those who would help them.
Those involved in substance abuse must contend with constant dissonance because there is so much compelling evidence that their substance abuse is dangerous.
Cognitive dissonance is the fundamental coping mechanism that people abusing drugs use throughout their active addiction and can often follow them into recovery.
Someone recovering from substance abuse is not immune from the continuing battle with cognitive dissonance.
Since this has been the normal way of thinking for them, it will continue as they progress through their recovery.
Individuals may experience setbacks or relapses and when they do, they can justify it the same way they did active addiction.
Addressing Cognitive Dissonance In Addiction Treatment
When considering and administering therapy for addiction recovery, it’s essential to evaluate different therapeutic methods.
Group therapy, for example, enhances recovery by tapping into one’s natural social instincts. Group therapy and other methods must be prefaced with the “beginner’s mind,” however.
The beginner’s mind refers to setting aside old beliefs and opinions to contemplate new ideas and information.
Often, group therapy nurtures the beginner’s mind because it provides the opportunity to build relationships with and learn from others in both similar and different stages of recovery.
At Elevate, we consider and employ various therapies throughout our holistic approach to mind-body-spirit addiction recovery treatment.
Tim Sinnott, LMFT LAADC
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