cognitive distortions

Recognizing Denial: How to Differentiate the Addict Brain from the Healthy Brain


“I don’t have a problem.”

“It’s not a big deal.”

“It doesn’t hurt anyone, especially if they don’t find out.”

“I deserve a break.”

These are classic statements of denial: distortions of truth that justify your decisions or compulsive behaviors and offer self-protection.  They often pop into your head automatically and outside of conscious awareness.  Even though they are distorted, they often feel true or carry some grain of truth, so it can be hard to discern whether they are true or false. 

How does denial keep you in addiction?

Denial keeps you stuck in addictive behaviors as you to turn a blind eye to how your actions impact you and others around you.  For sex and love addicts, denial functions as a way for your brain to justify your addictive actions and protect yourself from the guilt or shame you may feel for your behaviors.

Shame is a hallmark of addiction, and denial is a way for your mind to psychologically protect yourself against that shame.  Typically, addiction stems from past experiences of trauma, which communicate shame-based beliefs about your identity.  These shame messages are  uncomfortable and often painful, with words such as “I’m a loser,” “I’m a failure,” “I’m unlovable,” or “I’m worthless.”  Denial serves as a way of blocking these negative thoughts.

Yet while your mind is using denial to try to protect you from these harsh words, the denial statements inevitably lead back to your addictive behavior. The more times you engage in addictive behavior, the more your shame messages are reinforced, and you have to cover over the shame with denial again.  Denial may prevent you from being found out by yourself or others, but it also prevents you from getting the help that you need.

The Addict Brain

I like to think of these denial statements as the addict brain at work inside you.  There is a part of you, which we’ll call the “addict self,” that wants to remain in your addiction because of the benefits addictive behavior gives you, like a false sense of intimacy.  This addict self will tell you that you need to act out in your addiction and will therefore justify those behaviors.  It will repeatedly tell you that you don’t have a problem and that it’s not a big deal.

But when the addict brain is running the show, you are being controlled by your addiction rather than by your true self.  Getting in touch with your healthy brain requires a focused process.  Patrick Carnes talks about grabbing your frontal lobe (the part of your brain that facilitates impulse control and healthy decision-making) with reality and not letting it go as part of addiction recovery. 

Common Areas of Denial

Both Patrick Carnes in Facing the Shadow* and Rob Weiss in Sex Addiction 101* talk about the most common areas of denial.  Here are a few you may have experienced in your addiction.

  • Minimizing: claiming that the addiction has less impact than it truly does. “It’s not that big of a deal.”  “I can stop anytime I want.” “It’s not hurting anyone.”

  • Rationalizing: coming up with reasons why the addictive behaviors are okay or justifiable. “Everyone has needs.”  “I’m just expressing myself sexually.”

  • Comparing yourself to others. “I’m not as bad as he/she is.”  “I can’t be an addict because I haven’t done (fill in the blank).”

  • Blame-shifting: blaming others for why you need to engage in your addiction. “I wouldn’t have to watch porn if my partner were more sexual.”  “I need a release after my boss/my spouse gets on my case.”

  • Victim mentality: justifying your behaviors with feelings of helplessness or hopelessness. “I’m a lost cause.”  “I’m never going to get over my past sexual abuse.”  “When will my needs get taken care of?”

  • Ignoring key details: not admitting the worst parts of your behavior to yourself or others.

  • Living a double life: compartmentalizing the parts of you that are addicted as separate and not affecting your life. “Watching porn doesn’t affect my marriage.”  “My sexual behaviors don’t impact my day to day life.”

  • Entitlement: feelings of deserving a break or reward. “I deserve this.”  “I’ve had a tough day at work and I need this to unwind.”  “I’ve made it a week without looking at porn, so I can watch some as a reward.”

Do any of these phrases sound familiar to you?  What are your go-tos?

How to Deal with Denial

When you’re in a space where you are clear-headed and not in addict brain, write a list of your common denial statements.  Add to this list as you walk through recovery and listen to your addict brain.  Each time you are drawn toward your addictive behaviors, use that as an opportunity to hear what the addict brain is telling you.

Once you’ve compiled this list of addict thinking, write down affirmations or words of truth that respond to these distortions.  Use your healthy brain to respond to the addict.  Your 12 Step group or sponsor can help you in this process.  Sometimes the words of others jar you out of your own experience and remind you of truth.  Write down quotations from recovery literature or books that remind you of both the seriousness of your addiction and the hope you have in recovery.  Create a toolkit of positive words to come back to and read when denial is echoing in your brain.

When you’re noticing automatic thoughts of denial popping up, pause.  Review your list of healthy coping statements, write in your journal, call a support individual, or read recovery literature.  Ask yourself what you truly need and see if you can offer that to yourself in the moment.

Overcoming these phrases of denial is a major step in your recovery journey.  As you grow in awareness of your “addict thinking,” you can begin to rewrite your narrative with a recovery mindset and find freedom from addictive patterns.


Are you struggling with addict thinking?  Do you have a hard time quieting those words in your mind? Have you felt stuck in your addictive behaviors without hope of change?  At Restored Hope, I seek to help you achieve freedom from your addictive patterns, replacing them with a wholehearted and fulfilling life.  Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or email me today to schedule your first appointment.

*These are Amazon affiliate links.  Click here to read more about Restored Hope’s Amazon local associates policy.

How Are You an Unreliable Narrator in Your Own Life?

Have you noticed the trend recently in popular fiction where thrillers are becoming all the rage?  Books like Gone Girl and Girl on the Train have become increasingly popular.  A common element in many of these novels is the “unreliable narrator.”  At some point during first-person point-of-view novels, there’s a twist that clues us in to the fact that the narrator may be filtering the truth in such a way that works to their advantage or tells their side of the story.  This plot device adds an additional layer of mystery to the text as we try to figure out what’s true and what isn’t.

When have you realized that what you believed was true was wrong all along?

We tend to filter our experience through our beliefs about people and the world around us in a way that twists reality and leads us to doubt what we know to be true.  It can start with one mistaken belief or critical comment.  Before we know it, that statement grows into an internal voice that leads us to filter our beliefs through this new lens.  In depression and anxiety, this is particularly common, as these disorders add an additional filter to our thoughts that twists them to be even more inaccurate, becoming what psychologists call “cognitive distortions.”

What is a cognitive distortion?

Wikipedia summarizes well a definition of cognitive distortions as “exaggerated or irrational thought patterns that are believed to perpetuate the effects of psychopathological states, especially depression and anxiety.”

I think of it like the fun house attraction at those traveling fairs that rolled into town in your childhood.  Typically they featured mirrors that distorted your body shape and size.  This is a fitting picture of how our thoughts filter through these different lenses of reality and twist our beliefs into cognitive distortions.

Common Cognitive Distortions and Their Antidotes

While there are several different types of cognitive distortions, here are a few of the most common ones I’ve seen with depression and anxiety.  Alongside an example of each, I’ll provide an antidote (some ideas to try if you notice these are the filters you default to most commonly) and an adaptive thought (an example of a shift in thinking in response to that distortion).

All-or-nothing thinking happens when we believe that only two extremes exist, with no room for gray area in between.  We think in terms of good or bad, right or wrong, pass or fail. 

  • Example: “If I do poorly on this test, that means I’m a failure.”

  • Antidote: Make room for the gray in your life. We all make mistakes or do things poorly, but there are likely plenty of positives in your life as well. Think in terms of better and best instead of right and wrong.

  • Adaptive Thought: “One bad grade doesn’t disqualify the other good grades I’ve gotten or the hard work I put into studying.”

Overgeneralization occurs when we take an isolated event and expect that all other similar events will happen in the same way.

  • Example: “What’s the point of going out on dates? The last guy I dated didn’t call me back after the first date, so why should I expect anything different?”

  • Antidote: Recognize that each situation you experience is unique. If you believe this pattern exists, look for examples to disprove that pattern.

  • Adaptive Thought: “So that last date didn’t work out? We must’ve not been the right fit. The next guy I date might be a better fit for me.”

Jumping to conclusions involves assuming we already know how others will perceive us or how a situation will play out.

  • Example: “My friend didn’t say hi to me at church the other day – I must’ve done something wrong or offended her.”

  • Antidote: Reality check that assumption by either asking the other person if your belief is true or think of alternative explanations for what happened.

  • Adaptive Thought: “My friend might’ve been caught up in a conversation and didn’t see me at church, so it makes sense why she wouldn’t have said hi.”

Personalization is the belief that everything that happens around us is a direct response to something we have done or said.  This can lead to taking too much responsibility for how others respond to us, or worry that we’re being judged.

  • Example: “This party is so awkward – it must be because I’m so awkward and I’m ruining the night for everyone.”

  • Antidote: Set an internal boundary: affirm that you are not responsible for the thoughts and reactions of other people. What are some other reasons for the situation?

  • Adaptive Thought: “This party is kind of awkward because we don’t all know each other yet. Maybe I can start up a conversation with someone new or suggest a game to play!”

“Shoulds” involve thinking that we “should” do things a certain way, and if we don’t, it is a poor reflection on us or our character.

  • Example: “I should be exercising 5 days a week and if I’m not, I’m lazy.”

  • Antidote: Search for the source of that belief (family, friends, media, school, church, self) and explore why it has such an impact on you. Give yourself freedom to say “no” to it. Frame your decisions as a choice of what you want to do instead of “should” do.

  • Adaptive Thought: “I’d like to exercise more. I can choose to go for a run this afternoon.”

Emotional reasoning takes place when have a certain emotional response to our circumstances and come to accept that feeling as truth.

  • Example: “I feel ugly, so it must be true.”

  • Antidote: Remind yourself that emotions are changeable. Look for evidence that stands in direct contrast to the beliefs those emotions are telling you.

  • Adaptive Thought: “Even though I feel ugly, I know I’m feeling worse than usual today because I didn’t get enough sleep last night. I know those emotions will pass.”

Which of these cognitive distortions do you see the world through most often?  How can you actively seek to change those filters and become a more reliable narrator in your life?

At Restored Hope, I know the oppressive thoughts and emotions associated with anxiety and depression can feel like they are the truest reflection of yourself.  It is easy to question whether that you can overcome those negative beliefs and adopt a more honest and authentic understanding of yourself.  If you struggle with depression and anxiety, I’d love to meet with you at Restored Hope’s Ann Arbor counseling office to support your desire to break free from the weight of anxiety or depression.  Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or fill out the form here to talk today.