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Achieving and maintaining a healthy “self” is a never-ending goal for everyone. For people working to overcome addiction or mental health issues, developing a healthy self takes even more work. 

Understanding the roots of your addiction can be the first step toward reclaiming your true self. The founders of cognitive, behavioral, and psychodynamic therapies tell us that much of mental illness, including addiction, is caused by an emotionally unhealthy childhood. 

What Therapy Can Do For You

Yes, I know, we’ve all heard this before, but seeing the science behind this theory can be strangely liberating. That’s what therapy can do for you—open you up to new perspectives that give you distance between you and your emotions, habits, and psyche. In a simple metaphor, therapy can help you break out of a box—known as your current mindset—that is keeping you mentally and emotionally trapped.  

Psychodynamic theory might say that the walls of this box are the uncomfortable feelings and thought patterns that were formed by your childhood. Psychologists call them maladaptive schemas or cognitive distortions. In plain words, they are patterns of wrong thinking that are keep you from becoming your best and happiest self. Dysfunctional parenting that causes these schemas ranges from abuse, isolation and abandonment to over-protectiveness and over-indulgence. 

How You Can Change Your Maladaptive Schemas

Psychologists have determined that maladaptive schemas lead to mental disorders such as depression, anxiety, and drug abuse. A child that grows up in a home without healthy parenting doesn’t learn the normal skills of self-care as they mature. When life brings difficult challenges, they cope with their discomfort and emotions the only way they know how to, which may include turning to substance use. But doing so only ends up increasing their distress and suffering.  

Researchers have identified 18 different types of maladaptive schemas that can result from dysfunctional parenting. Parents who relate to their child with abuse or neglect may cause maladaptive schemas experienced as feelings of abandonment, emotional deprivation, approval-seeking, shame, and mistrust. Parents who over-indulge their child, stifling his or her development of self-reliance, may cause cognitive distortions related to feelings of entitlement, impaired limits, and grandiosity.

The Way Out

However, the good news is that there is a way out of these distorted mental constructs. Research has shown that maladaptive schemas formed during childhood can be changed in adulthood during therapy for substance use treatment. In one study of men with an average age of 42 who received treatment for alcohol and opioid use disorder, eight of their maladaptive schemas decreased significantly by the end of four weeks of treatment. Another study of college students treated for substance abuse showed that learning greater self-care through therapy was effective in reducing their drug and alcohol use. 

Therapies like cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) are proven effective in treating substance use disorder, especially when combined with medication-assisted therapy. CBT can help you identify your cognitive distortions and maladapted responses to situations, and replace them with healthier ways of thinking and behaving. If you struggle with managing strong emotions, dialectical behavior therapy can teach you to practice acceptance and compassion toward yourself, and employ mindfulness techniques when responding to life. 

With growing options for online therapy, including new therapy apps, different types of therapy are more available today than ever before. 

Creating a Healthy Self

For people who grew up without nurturing parents as role models, working with a supportive therapist can be especially helpful. That’s because a therapist can give you the healthy guidance and support you didn’t receive as a child, while introducing you to strategies you can use to overcome maladaptive schemas. Through therapy, you can learn how to take control of your life to create a healthier self. 

Understanding what makes a healthy self is another way psychology can be useful. 

Psychoanalyst Heinz Kolmut, the founder of a theory called Self-Psychology, indicated that a healthy self requires experiencing relationships with others that support a person’s sense of worth. He referred to experiences with other people and aspects of life as “selfobjects” that become part of the self. 

The Self is a Feeling of Unity

In his book, How Does Analysis Cure (1984), Kolmut wrote that “the self is a feeling of unity, strength, and harmony if, at each stage of life, it receives the appropriate responses from the selfobject environment: availability and receptivity, the conditions for all mental life. In times of temporary vulnerability, the better equipped the subject is to find the selfobjects he or she needs, the healthier he or she will be. The selfobject is not necessarily a person; it can be music, an outing, a talent, culture, and so forth.” With this concept in mind, we can be proactive in creating relationships and activities in life that feed our individual needs, passions and interests. 

Kohut believed that the need for supportive relationships continues throughout all stages of a person’s life to maintain a healthy “self.” Attending recovery support groups, as discussed in last month’s blog, is another proven way to gain positive feedback from others to maintain a healthy self in recovery. 

Creating a healthy and happy self is within your reach. To find out about options for therapy and addiction treatment, call a specialist


Diana Lomont has 20 years of experience in healthcare as a communications professional. With a BA in Journalism and MS in Writing, Diana enjoys researching and sharing evidence-based strategies to help others achieve wellness. Her background includes developing content on topics ranging from addiction recovery and mental health to state-of-the-art medical treatments. At the time of this writing, she is affiliated with Rehab Media Network.

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