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Comparative thinking can spiral

I was talking to a gentleman the other day about how he felt that his drinking became a problem when he began to hang around a crowd of other salespeople, who he felt were, as a profession, traditionally heavy drinkers, as if to say the profession breeds the problems. He had what I call “comparative thinking.”

So I started to try to think of professional groups who weren’t heavy drinkers and realized I know people from all walks of life in recovery. I tried “doctor,” but I know of a number of recovering doctors. I tried “pilot,” but I know a number of recovering pilots. I went through the list: engineers, stay-at-home moms, therapists, actors, professional sports people, priests, firefighters, cops, politicians, students, truck drivers, writers, unemployed people, etc., and my conclusion was they were all represented in the recovering community.

I suppose my informal research would indicate it’s not the profession but the person. It’s the drinker who picks the profession and, more importantly, the heavy drinking group within it with whom he compares himself.

So this gentleman, a salesman by trade, finds a group of other heavy drinking salesmen and women to drink with, so he thinks, “everybody in sales does it … it’s just the way it is.” He doesn’t see the people in his profession who aren’t heavy drinkers because 1) he doesn’t have much in common with them, ie. drinking heavily, and 2) he’d have to face the fact he might be a little worried about his drinking if he compared himself with one of his normal drinking co-workers.

The comparative thinking cuts both ways. Now that the group he’s hanging with has “caused” his problem and his drinking progresses, he needs to find a heavier drinking crew to compare himself with. This, I think, is how the “I couldn’t be one of THEM” phenomenon works. As long as my salesman friend compares himself to someone worse, he can justify his own drinking.

The problem is, as his disease progresses, he continually has to find people who are in worse shape than he. How many times has it been said, “I never missed a day of work because of drinking,” “I never got a DUI” or “I was never homeless” and hear a person justifying their drinking problem by comparing themselves to somebody worse rather than looking at their own symptoms.

I guess, at the end, the guys who are sleeping in shelters are telling themselves they’re better than those in cardboard boxes.

• Rick Atwater is a licensed clinical professional counselor.

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