What are you compensating for?

If you have used mood-altering substances in the past to avoid painful thoughts, feelings and situations, it is important to face not only what you may be avoiding but also the ways you may be avoiding those thoughts, feelings or situations.

Step four in the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous is to make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves. By doing so you may better understand what it is that makes the use of a mood-altering substance so attractive and what may lead you away from your commitment to staying free from your addiction.

Your answers to the following questions will help you identify thoughts and feelings you may be avoiding, as well as the ways you may be avoiding them. Use a pencil and paper to do a searching inventory of yourself. To determine what you may be avoiding and the ways you are doing it, it is necessary to be rigorously honest. So, being as honest as you can, write down any ways of thinking, feeling or behaving that could sabotage your commitment to giving up and staying clean. Now write what you are willing to do to begin the process of healing them, releasing them, or changing them.

Abstinence Symptom Inventory


Stress is a normal part of life, but unresolved, unmanaged, or unacknowledged stress can escalate into chronic anxiety. Ongoing unrelenting anxiety begs for relief from what you have used in the past to feel better.

  • Is emotional or physical pain causing anxiety?
  • Are you living with anxiety that is created by doubts about yourself?
  • Do you experience anxiety because you do not set limits for yourself and try to ‘do it all’?
  • Is your anxiety due to your belief that you must live up to the unrealistic expectations of others?
  • What else is causing you to have high anxiety?

Changing Anxiety

An effective way of relieving anxiety is by applying the Serenity Prayer to your life:

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

These words can be very powerful if you make them a way of life. They remind you to look for solutions to stressful situations that you can change and stop using up your energy on things you can’t do anything about. Some people use these words as a kind of mantra to help them take action when they need to and to accept reality as it is when it can’t be changed. (If the word ‘God’ here bothers you in any way, remember that this is a god of your understanding. You can substitute another word such as ‘higher power’ or whatever is meaningful to you.)  Many of the tools outlined in How to Quit Without Feeling S**t – yoga, meditation, relaxation exercises, massage or physical exercises – will help to reduce your anxiety as well.

Self-Defeating Self-Talk

Self-talk is a normal, healthy process of conversing with ourselves in words or pictures. Whereas normal self-talk helps us to solve problems, self-defeating self-talk (negative self-talk) reduces the ability to solve problems. What does your self-talk tell you about what you are avoiding and how you are doing it?

  • Do you tell yourself that you can’t do anything right?
  • Do you tell yourself that you don’t need help when you do?
  • Do you call yourself dumb, incompetent, a failure or unlovable?
  • In what situations do you give yourself these messages?

Changing Self-Defeating Self-Talk

To begin to change negative self-talk, start listening for self-defeating messages you give yourself. Then begin to say ‘stop’ either out loud or in your mind every time you hear yourself saying self-defeating things to yourself. Analyse what you are saying to determine what might be behind these messages. Finally, substitute a more accurate message for the self-defeating one.

Self-Defeating Behaviour

We tend to act as we think – we tend to be what we tell ourselves we are. Self-defeating thinking turns into self-defeating behaviour. We tend to avoid situations that we think will expose what we think of ourselves. If we tell ourselves that we are dumb, we avoid situations in which someone else might find out. And by doing so, we deprive ourselves of new opportunities or stimulating activities.

  • Are you betraying yourself by not being who you are or not standing up for what you believe in?
  • Are you stuck in a rut and avoiding a new challenge to give meaning to life?
  • Do you quit when you make a mistake in order to avoid failure?
  • Because of low opinions of yourself, do you avoid social situations that could be fun or stimulating for you?
  • Do you brood instead of doing something about an unacceptable situation?

Changing Self-Defeating Behaviour

When you identify what you are doing that is self-defeating, make a plan for doing something different. Tell someone else what your plans are and ask them to support you as you make these difficult changes.

Feeling Powerless and Hopeless

When you feel your situation is hopeless and that you are powerless to change it, you will probably avoid any attempt to do so and therefore become a victim.

  • Are you bored or unfulfilled in your work?
  • Do you feel trapped by your marriage or other relationships?
  • Do you feel that you are a victim of your addiction?
  • Do you feel deprived of any way to feel good or relieve your pain because you can no longer use your mood-altering substance?
  • Are you drowning in your sorrows?
  • Are you overwhelmed by all the things you need to do to regain your health?
  • Do you avoid responsibility for your situation by blaming others?

Changing Feeling Powerless and Hopeless

When you feel powerless to change anything, it helps to make a list of all the options you can think of, even ones that seem absurd at first. Talk to someone to help you sort out what are realistic options and make a commitment to change what you have the power to change.


Conflicts with yourself, others and the world can arise from the depression and anger of feeling hopeless.

  • Is your depression really accumulated anger about your situation?
  • Are you avoiding the real reasons for your situation by projecting your anger onto other people?
  • Are you avoiding conflict by ‘playing the game’ that everything is all right?
  • Are you in conflict with yourself because part of you wants to stay sober or clean and part of you wants to return to what relieves your pain?

Avoiding Conflicts

When you recognize that you are angry and avoiding what you are really angry about, it can be helpful to attempt to look honestly at what is really going on. Talk with other people to get a different perspective. Or write about your situation from the point of view of someone else.

Risky Choices

You may be using some very risky ways to make yourself feel better in order to avoid facing what is really going on. You may not return to the addictive substance you have used in the past, but you may find some very risky substitutes. You may engage in activities that you have associated with addictive activity in the past. What risky choices are you making to avoid facing your pain?

  • Are you creating reasons to ‘cheat’ on your nutritional plan?
  • Are you obsessively thinking about using your primary mood-altering substances?
  • Are you avoiding meetings or counselling because of the discomfort of facing the real source of your pain?
  • Are you spending time with people who are not supportive of your recovery?
  • Are you spending time with people who have been part of your ‘addictive’ past?
  • Are you telling yourself you can ‘just have one’?

Avoiding Risky Choices

When you are making these kinds of risky choices, you need the help of other people to help you get back on track, help you to face what you are avoiding, and help you make plans to find healthier and safer choices. People who have supported you and your commitment to stay clean and sober in the past usually offer the best choices for someone to turn to when you are struggling to get back on track.  Who are these people in your life? It is helpful to write down their names and even to contact them and ask them in advance if it is all right to ask for their help when you need it.