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How Do People Rationalize Addiction?

Rationalization is a defense mechanism people often use when they see their drinking or drug use has become a problem but they don’t want to stop. There are many different rationalizations, but what they have in common is they try to make it seem like drinking or drug use is reasonable under the circumstances. So someone trying to rationalize heavy drinking might say something like, “I know I’ve been drinking a lot but it’s only because work has been so stressful lately.”

Unlike denial, rationalization involves at least a tacit admission that alcohol or drugs have become a problem. Whereas someone in denial says, “Everything is fine,” someone using rationalization says, “Maybe there’s a problem, but it’s only because of specific circumstances.”

There may be some truth to rationalization. After all, people do sometimes drink out of grief or because of stress. The problem is that when you rationalize, you’re looking for reasons for your behavior rather than solutions for your problem. It may be understandable to drink because of stress at work, but it doesn’t make work less stressful. It probably makes work more stressful, especially if you drink at work.

As with any rationalization, rationalizing addiction is only superficial. You want to keep drinking or using drugs because on some deep level, you feel like you have to. However, you also don’t want to admit you have no control over the matter and you don’t want to face the ordeal of actually quitting, so rationalizing makes you feel like there’s a good reason for continuing to drink or use drugs. You may even believe your rationalizations, simply because most of us like to think we do things for good reasons.

It’s hard to break through rationalizations. And the more intelligent you are, the better you will be at rationalizing. You may be less likely to believe others when they tell you your behavior is irrational and destructive. You may be able to marshall a swarm of objections to deflect the person’s arguments and generate enough doubt  that you feel justified in not doing anything.

The key to getting through to someone who is rationalizing is to make her see that her behavior is actually irrational. Maybe people do drink when they’re under stress, but look at all the ways your drinking has objectively created more stress for yourself. Getting someone to accept that having an excuse or an explanation for a behavior doesn’t make it rational isn’t always easy. It might take some event like an arrest or an intervention before she really sees that her addictive behavior is creating more problems than it solves.
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