Positive psychology can help recovering addicts discover their power over old habits. A positive approach to recovery can make an important contribution to a field that can be unwittingly negative. Despite good intentions, many treatment strategies weaken a recovering addict’s belief in their personal power. Here are some examples.

The addict as trauma victim

Addicts are often told they are victims of trauma and their addiction will go way if they heal the trauma. But “healing” tends to get defined in an idealized way that does not exist. This leaves an addict focused on their past powerlessness rather than their present potential. The healing metaphor supports unrealistic expectations because physical wounds heal by resting on the couch. Psychic wounds do not. Nor does healing come from making child-like demands on the adult world as if collecting on an old debt. Recovery requires active steps that benefit from awareness of one’s strength rather than one’s woundedness.

The “specialness” of addiction

Addiction experts tends to generate data on the special challenges presented by the condition they study. Such information helps addicts feel special. We humans naturally seek that which makes us special, and build social alliances around a shared sense of grievance against those who undervalue our specialness. An addict loses this special identity and support if they end their addiction. Recovery look unappealing if it leaves a person feeling like a gazelle without a herd in a world full of predators. Positive psychology can help people meet their natural need for social significance in healthy ways instead of by identifying with the addiction.

The quest for “the right help”

Recovery used to be framed as a quest to “get help,” but many people remained addicted after tremendous amounts of help. Now recovery is framed as a quest for “the right help.” This makes it easy for addicts to see themselves as passive recipients of treatment rather than agents of their own choices. The problem is exacerbated when well-meaning professionals blame relapses on a client’s past providers. A professional naturally longs to be “the one” who succeeds where others have failed, but such thinking invites addicts to blame their outcomes on flaws in their treatment instead of tapping into their own power. Treatment professionals enjoy the activist metaphor of fighting for services and uniting in the quest for the cure, but addicts benefit more from paradigms that accent their power to take steps on their own behalf.

A positive alternative

If addiction could be solved by championing addicts as special trauma victims deprived of the right help, the problem would already be solved. Unfortunately, many kinds of help don’t help. Recovery requires active steps that build new neural pathways. A treatment is only “help” if such steps result. False help feeds the belief that treatment can fix you with no investment on your part. That belief has left frustrated addiction experts pinning their hopes on a pill.

The reader may indeed be waiting for “the pill” that cures addiction in the same passive way that a broken engine is fixed in a repair shop. Believers in this approach often pride themselves on their compassion, and condemn the morality of other approaches. The fact that one risks being morally condemned for expecting addicts to be proactive is emblematic of the negative thinking that infuses this field. There is plenty of room for a more positive approach, and positive psychology is well suited to lead it.

I present such an approach in: the blog post Your Power Over Addiction, the video You Have Power Over Your Happy Brain Chemicals, and the book Habits of a Happy Brain: Retrain your brain to boost your serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin and endorphin levels

About the author: Loretta Breuning, PhD, is Professor Emerita of Management at California State University, East Bay and the author of The Science of Positivity and Habits of a Happy Brain. She’s Founder of the Inner Mammal Institute, which offers a wide range of resources that help you build power over your mammalian brain chemistry. Check it out at InnerMammalInstitute.org


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