25 August 2007

Getting Well, Part 2: Stinkin' Thinkin' - the 12-Step Perspective

Stinkin' thinkin' is a familiar phrase in 12-Step and other recovery programs. In these programs, it stands for the types of distorted thinking that addicts and enablers [co-dependents] have either learned or been taught, thinking which preserves both the addiction and the co-dependent relationship to the addict and the addiction.

Cognitive therapy also refers to stinkin' thinkin', in terms of self-defeating tapes and scripts that foster depression and estrangement from others and oneself.

I see both similarities and differences between the 'cognitive therapy' and '12-step' concepts. Both focus on teaching us to see how we use conceptual distortions to preserve an unhealthy situation, whether it be the addictive-codependent relationship [12-step] or other painful and unproductive ways of seeing and relating to the world and one's circumstances [cognitive].

In my assessment, a primary objective of cognitive therapy is to encourage people to take appropriate responsibility and a greater sense of their own power. However, most recovering addicts and codependents first need to address feelings of entitlement and the right to dominate others, as well as feelings of entrapment and overwhelming responsibility for other people and entire situations. Weirdly enough, these feelings can coexist, and often do - resulting in significant cognitive dissonance, sometimes to the point of virtually disabling rational processing.

Speaking from my own experience, the 12-step definition of stinkin' thinkin' is a solid starting place for people who have become aware of abuse in their families or elsewhere and are trying to break denial and escape from abusive patterns and partners. The last thing a codependent needs to hear is that he or she is entirely responsible for how the world treats him or her... because this is exactly the idea that the addict, or other abuser, has been feeding to the codependent all along, in order to keep the codependent... codependent. [I drink, I drug, I beat, I cheat, and it's All YOUR Fault.]

What are some examples of addictive and codependent stinkin' thinkin'? The 12-step site I've linked to above presents some real gems: I quote them below, in italics, with thanks, and interpret the distortion at play in each one, in brackets behind it.

1. Problems will go away if I ignore them. [Denial is a valid method of problemsolving. I have the right to expect problems to solve themselves, without any expenditure of effort on my part.]

2. Life will be better when I find a man to love me and I leave home to live with him. [Dependence is preferable to independence and individuation. See the Karpman Rescue element here?]

3. A woman cannot be really happy without a man. [Dependence is preferable to independence and individuation; to be alone is to be inferior, or to have failed; even an abusive relationship is better than being alone.]

4. It's ok for men to be a little rough because "boys will be boys." [Men, because they are men, are exempted from exercising adult self-control. Abuse is excusable and an inevitable price that women pay to have relationships with men. This distortion is also used by parents as an excuse to avoid the unpleasant and demanding task of appropriately disciplining their male children. With predictable results. The counterpart to this distortion is that it's OK for women to be weak and entirely dependent on men for everything up to and including their sense of self. See 2. and 3. above.]

5. Those I love should love me. [Love is a magically transforming emotion and it is not my responsibility to bestow it wisely. The healthy concept, of which this is a distorted shadow, is: I am wisest to treat all persons with appropriate respect, but to give my love only to people who are themselves capable of love.]

6. I should not have to make an effort to get the things I want and need. [Dependence is my birthright - it is the responsibility of my loved ones, indeed of the whole inanimate universe, to read my mind and do good things for me.]

7. A woman is limited because "It's a man's world". [Tricky one, this. Prejudice is real, including sexism, but it doesn't have to be accepted, it can be resisted. This presentation seems to offer it as a welcome excuse for failure. Dependency again.]

8. Other people should be fair and loving. [Indeed, they should be. And so should we. The problem is, none of us are able to be fair and loving all the time, and many people are not fair and loving at all. Merely wishing that they were will not make it so, nor does it absolve us of the responsibility to learn to recognize who is and who isn't, and protect ourselves appropriately.]

You can see the pattern of distortion here. We are totally helpless in the face of abuse and arbitrarily imposed limitations, while at the same time we are, somehow, totally responsible for the fact of their existence. Meanwhile, Karpman fantasies of rescue and entitlement [something for nothing - we deserve to be rescued and given all good things] are proffered in the place of realistic self-empowerment and the acceptance of adult responsibility.

First we need to learn how pervasive this thinking is in our own abusive relationships [whether in marriage, workplace, friendships, church, or elsewhere]; then we need to reach the point where we can identify these distortions the moment they arise in our thoughts. We must, in other words, become sufficiently detached from these ways of thinking and seeing the world that they are no longer an instinctive, reflexive response, but are more like something outside of us.

This takes practice. This takes effort. This takes awareness. There are no shortcuts.

Once we have reached the point where we have seen and stepped outside these distortions, we can then turn to cognitive therapy to teach us more about appropriate responsibility, appropriate empowerment, appropriate ownership of that which is truly ours, including our true birthrights as full members of the flawed, fallible, fantastic human race.

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