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By David Fawcett PhD, LCSW

An essential part of recovery from any addictive behavior is learning to fully accept one’s problematic use of drugs, alcohol, sex, porn, etc. In fact, acceptance is the core of step 1 of the 12 steps. It is a foundational skill that helps us move forward in recovery. This blog outlines some actions we can take when thoughts, triggers, and urges interfere with our ability to remain in a state of acceptance.

The “observing self” is an important concept that is useful for this process. It allows us to step out of ourselves and notice our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors as if watching another person. The observing self is essential for the practice of mindfulness – the ability to notice our urges and reactions in real-time and without judgment.

Using our observing self to help us maintain a state of acceptance involves three phases:

  • Stop.
  • Step back.
  • Observe thoughts and feelings as they occur while noticing what is happening in the world around you.

Stopping our automatic reactions to triggering thoughts or feelings is critical because, as addicts, we become accustomed to automatically reacting to cues and triggers that spring up from within. In our active addiction, we lose conscious awareness of these impulses. Once we become aware of our addictive patterns, however, we can to notice our thoughts and feelings and take charge of our reactions, utilizing discernment about what serves our highest good. As we practice taking charge of our thoughts, feelings, and reactions, we slowly but steadily gain more and more control over them.

When we are able to stop the process, we are ready for the next phase: taking a step back. With this, we make a conscious effort to notice what is happening, recognizing our internal thoughts and feelings, and identifying cues or triggers to act out addictively.

Lastly, we observe our interpretation of these thoughts or feelings and the impact that they are having on us, especially noticing any unhelpful thoughts. These unhelpful thoughts typically involve old, false beliefs about ourselves that we internalized at an early age.

Often, unhelpful thoughts come to us in the form of critical self-talk. We must learn to separate ourselves from this internal critical voice, reminding ourselves that whatever that voice is telling us is only one (and usually a false) opinion or reaction to the situation. As we do this, we create healthier beliefs about ourselves, and the ability to react to our thoughts and feelings in healthier ways.

As we strengthen our observing self, we also strengthen our ability to accept our addiction as well as life on life’s terms.

Here are four tips to help you in this process:

  1. Don’t let your unhelpful thoughts bully you. In fact, treat your unhelpful thoughts like a bully and remember that you don’t have to believe those thoughts just because they’re in your head.
  2. Remember that your unhelpful thoughts are both unwelcome and untrue. Be conscious of where they want to lead you and know that you don’t have to go there.
  3. When you identify negative self-talk, separate yourself from it by giving it a funny voice or an accent. This helps separate you and the truth from that critical voice conveying false beliefs.
  4. Narrate your process out loud. For example, “I notice I’m having a thought that triggers my addictive behavior. I choose to react in a healthy way by refuting the thought and then practicing a new, healthy response.”