Externalizing may be defined as blaming your behavior on outside forces or circumstances. This is intimately linked with the formation of resentments that people carry with them for years and use repeatedly to justify drinking, drug use, gambling, sexual activity, and the like. The externalizer may blame society, the family of origin, the current relationships, medical or physiological maladies, or peers for his involvement in the problem behavior. Remember, this is an unconscious defense, so the externalizer regards this blaming as completely unique and justifiable (the most dangerous and difficult resentments to deal with are the justifiable ones.)
Externalizing is a way of saying, “If you (or he, or she, or it, or society, etc) won’t change, then I can’t either.” Once again, the addict shifts the burden of change off himself and on to others. A highly effective maneuver, apparently, in our society, because marketers and advertisers employ it frequently. Once I saw an advertisement for a tranquilizer that featured a young woman in apparent psychological distress. Around her were captions indicating the stress she felt due to attending college, having to leave home, make new friends, and her awareness of problems in the political and social world around her. Amazing, I thought; terrorists hijack a ship so she needs a sedative? Nonetheless the advertisers employed this transparent device because we have been trained to unthinkingly accept it.
Externalizing is so effective because it’s so common. Most of us fall for it. We imagine ourselves struggling to cope with some difficulty, and how hard our lives would be. But would we turn to abuse of alcohol or drugs? And as that escalated, wouldn’t it become a more serious problem than the one we thought we were treating? That’s the irrationality at the heart of externalization.
In addiction literature, externalizing is defined: “Blaming outside forces or circumstances for addictive behavior and/or its related problems.”
- “It’s my wife’s nagging that makes me want to drink.”
- “I can’t quit unless I know my family is 100% behind me.”
- “I can’t think about quitting til I get my work situation straightened out.”
Result: The externalizer tries to ‘fix’ his life by changing everyone else instead of himself.
How we answer it: Keep the focus on the addict/alcoholic and remind them that the change as to come from her/him.
How it ends: Eventually, through painful experience, the externalizer recognizes that the secret of recovery is focusing on changing yourself, not others.
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