What Does Positive Reinforcement Mean For Addicts?

January 27, 2022 | recovery

Positive reinforcement is a form of encouragement. It's a way to show someone they're making the right decisions or are on the right path.

Have you ever been in a conversation, telling folks about an accomplishment you’re incredibly proud of, only to feel the disappointment of their lack of interest or care for what you’ve done?

That’s something we’ve all been through, and it’s incredibly discouraging. As much as we hate to admit it, it can make us feel like our efforts aren’t that important. It might even make us feel like it’s not worth pursuing the things we think are essential.

Addicts can feel the same way. It should go without saying that it isn’t great for their recovery. In fact, it can be detrimental to the entire experience.

Let’s talk about what positive reinforcement is and why it’s so important to the recovery process.

What is positive reinforcement?

Positive reinforcement is a form of encouragement. It’s a way to show someone they’re making the right decisions or are on the right path.

Yes, showing positive reinforcement can be done through engaging with someone after accomplishments by telling them that they’ve done well or that you’re proud of them. However, you can do more than that.

For example, taking them out for a nice dinner or family activity to celebrate their success can be a great way to make them feel even better about their accomplishments. It can even remind them that there’s an everyday, healthy life waiting for them. That’s not to say that you should outright hold anything as a form of motivation, but you are showing them that doing the right thing has positive consequences.

Again, this is just an example, and you should treat each situation in the most appropriate manner possible.

How can being positive help addicts?

Positivity breeds positivity. The same is true for negativity.

Something we should talk about is how much of an impact negativity has on addicts.

In the example we used for the opening of this discussion, you might have thought that it’s not that big of a deal.

If someone else isn’t proud of you, you can still live your life knowing that you’ve accomplished many great things, and you don’t need their opinions to verify that. Addicts don’t exactly have that same mindset.

It can be quite the opposite. Using drugs led to their addiction, which is a negative. That addiction may have ruined relationships and career opportunities and inspired many negative setbacks in their lives.

When nobody shows them positive reinforcement, they can’t draw on that confidence to keep themselves feeling good. As a result, it can be just as dark and demoralizing as we made it out to be, if not worse.

When you show positivity, you’re showing them that accomplishments through their road to recovery are things to be proud of. While they may still struggle with the reality that they put themselves in the situation, the domino effect positivity inspires can still come into play.

That feeling of pride they have for reaching marks can help propel them toward the next goal, and the next after that, they feel stronger and more motivated to accomplish more.

That is to say, positivity can be one of the most beneficial things to any addict’s recovery process.

What’s the difference between positive reinforcement and enabling?

Enabling and positive reinforcement are two very different things. To enable is to give someone struggling with addiction cause to use again.

It can be through lack of disciplinary action to prevent using, turning a blind eye to their actions, and even providing positive reinforcement when it’s not justified.

Positive reinforcement is to reward them for making the right choice, like awarding gold stars for straight As and a cleanroom. In the case of addiction, the right choices are to avoid using, achieve so many days of sobriety, or help others reach their own recovery goals.

As long as you are applying positive reinforcement when these goals are met honestly, it can in no way be mistaken as a form of enabling.

The most important thing to take away from this is that positivity breeds positivity. Positive reactions inspire positive motivation and more positive results. That might seem like an oversimplification, but it truly is that simple.

The next most important thing to remember is that positive reinforcement should only be shown when the right choices are truly made.

For example, rewarding someone hitting 180 days of sobriety even though you know they’ve secretly been using should be avoided because it can become a form of enabling.

Each situation is unique, and what is appropriate really does depend on the exact situation you and the addicted are facing. If you need advice on deciding how to show positive reinforcement appropriately, there’s no shame in reaching out to addiction treatment specialists for advice.