Freedom From Suffering with Dr. Steven Grinstead




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Identifying the Inner Saboteur

Dr. Stephen F. Grinstead, Dr. AD, LMFT, ACRPS

Have you ever had a time when you were very enthusiastic and excited about achieving a goal and then you got in your own way? I know I have. I didn’t even realize that I was sabotaging myself.

There are many different ways of talking about that part of ourselves that can both protect and sabotages us—sometimes at the same time. Some people call this our psychological defense system. Others call it denial, while still others call it the inner saboteur. Have you ever heard the expression “the committee in your head?” For others it’s the angle or devil on your shoulder and for still others it’s the “monkey mind.”

You can think about this protective dynamic as a collection of thoughts, opinions, beliefs and conclusions that we developed over our lifetime. It protects us and helps us to get our needs met, which can be a very positive payoff. Unfortunately, it can also lead to blind spots that actually hurt us more than help.

I’ve seen many people living with chronic pain that developed coexisting disorders but were unaware of what was happening. Some of them developed depression, anxiety, or sleep disorders that they didn’t manage very well and experienced life damaging consequences as a result. Others started have problems managing their pain medication and developed a substance use disorder—prescription drug abuse or even addiction—and they just didn’t see it. Their mind was trying to protect them from a painful reality.

Just as the human body has an immune system to protect it from dangerous physical organisms, the human mind has a mental immune system to protect it from overwhelming pain and problems. That mental immune system is our psychological defense that is designed to protect the mind and personality.

Denial is one part of this psychological defensive system. It is activated whenever we are asked to think or talk about a painful or overwhelming problem. There is nothing sick, pathological, or wrong about this. Denial is a normal and natural human response to severe pain and problems.

At times of high stress the brain can get emotionally overloaded; the brain will then activate automatic defenses. These denial, or thinking patterns are turned on by a specific trigger that threatens something that we value. As a severe problem causes intense stress, the brain turns on intense fear and/or anger. This activates a psychological program that starts mobilizing automatic defensive thoughts and the urge to use resistant behaviors.

A major obstacle to recognizing these self-sabotaging behaviors and achieving effective treatment is this denial system; the psychological defense mechanism that protects us from devastating pain and problems which is automatic and unconscious. It’s important to remember that this system of defense was developed to protect us from being overwhelmed by our painful reality.

There are two primary antidotes for denial—acceptance and problem solving.

Acceptance is a peaceful acknowledgement of the truth. If you can calmly face the problem, acknowledge the truth about what is going on, and accept that it is happening, a way for handling the situation can be discovered. The person who has accepted the truth of a serious problem has the ability to honestly affirm to themselves: "I have a serious problem! I am responsible for dealing with it! I'm willing to learn how!"

Problem Solving is a system for finding solutions to problems. Effective problem solving systems involve identification and clarification of your problems, identifying and projecting the logical consequences of alternatives, deciding which alternative to use, taking action, and evaluating the outcome. By recognizing and accepting the problem and developing an effective problem solving plan, the need to use denial will go down because your ability to manage problems will go up.

In order to recognize and stop denial quickly when it occurs, we need to learn how to stop our automatic unconscious reactions to the denial, then learn how to pause and respond with conscious choices instead.

Unconscious Reactions are automatic habitual things that we do when something happens. There are four things that we automatically do when something happens to us: we think about it, have feelings about it, get an urge to do something about it, or actually do something about it. We normally don’t pay attention to these different parts of the reaction. A trigger goes off, we react, something happens because of what we did and we start reacting to the new problems we created by our first reactions.

To learn how to manage denial we have to learn how to recognize the different ways that we respond to the denial once it is activated. Our reactions to denial can be broken down into its component parts which are: (1) automatic thoughts, (2) automatic feelings, (3) automatic urges, and (4) automatic actions. To learn how to effectively deal with deal with our denial, we must learn how to turn automatic reactions into conscious choices.

Conscious Choices are different from unconscious reactions. An unconscious reaction is automatic, we do it without thinking. A conscious choice is something we make a decision to do. In order to manage our denial, we must learn to make better choices about how we consciously respond to our denial. In other words, we need to consciously choose what we think, how we manage and express our feelings, how we manage our urges, and what we actually do when our denial is activated. By doing this we can learn how to quickly turn off the denial and focus on identifying and solving the painful problem that activated the denial.

To learn how to manage our denial patterns, we need to recognize what are the thoughts, feelings, urges, actions, and social reactions that get triggered in us. We can then learn how to turn off each denial pattern by changing what we are thinking, how we are managing our feelings and urges, what we are doing, and how we are relating to other people. To do that, we need to understand how thoughts, feelings, urges, actions, and social reactions relate to one another. Here are some basic principles to clarify how this works.

1. Thoughts Cause Feelings. Whenever we think about something we automatically react by having a feeling or an emotion.

2. Thoughts And Feelings Work Together To Cause Urges. Our way of thinking causes us to feel certain things. These feelings, in turn, reinforce the way that we are thinking. These thoughts and feelings work together to create an urge to do something. An urge is a desire that may be rational or irrational. The irrational urge to use alcohol or other drugs including prescription medications, even though we know that it will hurt us is also called craving. It is irrational because we want to use alcohol or other drugs even though we know that it will not be good for us.

3. Urges Plus Decisions Cause Actions. When we feel an urge we can pause and decide to something about it or to do nothing. This pause between the urge and action is called a decision point. Decision points are critically important because what we do or don’t do at a decision point will determine what happens next.

A decision is a choice. A choice is specific way of thinking that causes us to commit to one way of doing things while refusing to do anything else. The decision point is the space between the urge and the action and it is always filled with a decision. The decision may be an automatic and unconscious choice that we have learned to make without having to think about it, or the decision can be based upon a conscious choice that result from carefully reflecting upon the situation and the options available for dealing with it.

4. Actions Cause Reactions From Other People. Our actions affect other people and cause them to react to us. It is helpful to think about our behavior like invitations that we give to other people to treat us in certain ways. Some behaviors invite people to be nice to us and to treat us with respect. Other behaviors invite people to argue and fight with us or to put us down. In every social situation we share part of the responsibility for what happens. This is because we are constantly inviting people to respond to us by the actions we take and by how we react to what other people do.

To recognize and stop our denial we need to learn how to: (1) tell the difference between thoughts and feelings; (2) tell the difference between feelings and urges; (3) tell the difference between urges and actions; (4) tell the difference between our actions and the social reaction they cause.

Part of learning how to manage denial patterns is to learn how to control our impulses. We don’t have to do whatever we feel an urge to do. We can learn to stop our automatic reactions and start making conscious choices. We can do this by learning how to pause, relax, reflect, and decide. We can learn to control our impulses even when we feel a strong urge to do something immediately. It’s not easy, but we can learn how. Let’s look at these four steps of the impulse control process:

  • Pause and notice the urge without doing anything about it;
  • Relax by taking a deep breath, slowly exhaling, and consciously imagining the stress draining from your body;
  • Reflect upon what you are experiencing by asking yourself: “What do I have an urge to do? What has happened when I have done similar things in the past? What is likely to happen if I do that now?”; and then
  • Decide what you are going to do about the urge. Make a conscious choice instead of acting out in an automatic an unconscious way. When making the choice about what you are going to do, remind yourself that you will be responsible for both the action and its consequences.


Remember: Impulse control lives in the space between the urge and the action.

This is just a starting point. The important thing is to not do this type of work alone. We have a highly developed ability to fool ourselves despite our best intentions. If you’ve learned something about yourself, please share it with others and use it to take the next step toward improving the quality of your life.

To learn more about denial for chronic pain and alcohol and other drug problems or are experiencing self-sabotaging behaviors, please check out our Book Store at


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