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Substance Use Blog Series: Strengthening Identity Separate from Substance Use

When discussing managing substance use challenges, a huge focus is put on regulating symptoms, cravings and behaviours in ways that line up with recovery goals. This is all a vital part of recovery, and when cravings and/or triggers feel overwhelming it can be difficult to focus on much else. Self-regulation skills are incredibly important especially when you have limited capacity to hold anything else, but when you have the capacity it is also important to focus on and nurture the parts of yourself that are not tied to substances. That is the topic of today’s post.

Our Stories

The way we tell our stories to ourselves and others is powerful. It affects the way we see ourselves, how others see us, and to an extent, how we fit into our surroundings. Think about the main traits you define yourself by, and try tracing them back to stories you hold onto and regularly share with others. Every time you tell these stories those traits build further into your self-concept.

Everyone has unique stories tied to their substance use challenges, their choices to change their habits, and their recovery journey. Like any, these stories are powerful and shape identity in real and lasting ways. If you haven’t considered this before, it may be valuable to take a moment and consider what kinds of stories you tell yourself in this regard and reflect on how they affect your identity, and how you present your personality to the world. Being able to tell your own story in regards to substance use challenges has been well documented in relation to recovery [1].

Externalizing Problems

This mode of thinking comes from narrative therapy. Narrative therapy works with the stories we define ourselves by, and focusses on externalizing the person from the problem. This is not done to diminish the impact the problem has or to imply that it can be shipped off and not have an influence anymore. It’s more of a framework for seeing struggles through the lens of how they affect us and not as an inherent part of our identity. It’s about seeing your symptoms as symptoms, and not as defining who you are (Exploring your mind).

Simple language shifts in how you describe your challenges related to substance use can help with this.

Instead of saying “I can’t stop having cravings and it’s too hard not to give into them,” try saying “Cravings show up and try to overpower me even when I’m working hard on recovering and it feels hard to keep control.”

When you use this kind of language in self-talk and when talking to others, it can gradually create a distance where there is more space for your own agency and strengths to come forward. The struggles don’t change in magnitude, but they can maintain a distance while you build up your own resources.

Stories can only maintain their power if we keep believing them.

Reflection Questions / Journaling Prompts

There are many questions you can reflect on using this externalizing language. What questions you ask may depend on your stage of recovery. I have included two sets of questions that may be relevant. I encourage you to come up with your own aswell. Any questions that help separate a particular struggle from your identity and focusses on strengthening your inner resources is fair game. These can be used as self-reflection questions, can be discussed with a loved one, or can be used as journal prompts.

While it may be helpful to reflect on some of these questions, it is important to note exercises like these are not a substitute for therapy. They are good jumping off points to do your own exploration, but facilitated exploration that deals with where you are at during a particular moment and in a particular headspace is what therapy is for.

It is also important to repeat that these exercises depend on current capacity. If you’re working through a trigger or are feeling severely overpowered by a substance use challenge, it may feel infantilizing to yourself to try separating it. Don’t do it in those moments. If it feels like make believe that is not the point, and pick a time when your resources feel more accessible. Those are moments for grounding and self-regulation instead of exploration. Knowing when to use which skills at what times is a huge part of recovery, and is another reason why accessing therapy is important when possible. This post goes through resources that are available in Delta, and this post describes the substance use counselling services available through Deltassist. 

Early Recovery – Contemplation and Preparation Stage

This set of questions may be helpful if you’re in early recovery and are feeling the influence of your challenges quite strongly, but still feel the capacity to explore their role. A post detailing the stages of change can be found here. Of course, there can be so many challenges related to substance use that whittling them down to one is difficult to do. Instead of lumping them together, pick one aspect that often comes up and makes it difficult for you to maintain your recovery goals. Come up with a name for it. This can be the name of the substance itself, or an associated quality. All of these questions are from Colin James Sanders’ article posted by Peak House.

  • How has ____ been affecting your life?

  • Describe how activities you used to enjoy have been affected by ____.

  • Describe some of your plans that ____ interfered with.

  • Are there specific situations or contexts in your life that ____ is more likely to take advantage of?

Action and Maintenance Stage

Once you get more attuned to this mode of thinking, you can actively focus on strengthening the parts of yourself that have power over ____, instead of only focusing on externalizing it. These questions may be relevant if you’re feeling a new sense of control that you want to expand on.

  • Describe a time recently, or in the past, when you talked back to ____.

  • What was it like to protest against ____’s domination of your life?

  • What actions have you taken to reclaim your health/relationship/mind (etc.) from ____’s grasp?

  • What is it you now know about ____ that can help you in escaping its influence, or standing up to it? 

Making Room for your Strengths

If exploring these questions has brought up a feeling of strength within you, take a moment to explore that and name it as well. Whether it is a motivation to recover, a past trait that has felt overshadowed by substance use, a stubbornness to be controlled, or anything else, take a minute to sit with it and think about its story. Where did this trait originate, when does it show up the most in your life, and what adds to its feeling of strength? If there are recognizable ways to integrate this into your daily life more, focus on doing so and practice tuning into it mindfully. Community can play a huge role in bringing out certain parts of ourselves, so if this trait tends to show up more around some people than others, consider reaching out that that community.

There is no one-size-fits-all way to describe how to identify more with your strengths, or to build a life that makes more room for them. Doing this will depend on your circumstances and resources. In any case, there will be changes to your routines and perhaps your community. Approaching these shifts with strong boundaries is important.


The Hazeldon Betty Ford Foundation provides the following definition of boundaries: 

Boundaries are physical and/or emotional limits that people set for themselves as a way to safeguard their own well-being. 

 As you enter recovery, your priorities and values will begin to shift. Whether you are approaching recovery from a place of harm reduction or abstinence, there will be times you will need to say no to certain invitations or situations.

Foundry provides 6 tips for maintaining healthy boundaries in recovery. I provide a brief summary here:

  1. Knowing your Values and Principles – As you create changes to your life in a way that leaves more room for your strengths, values change. Being in touch with these values and why they are important to you will serve as a reminder when situations come up that require boundary setting.

  2. Listen to your gut – As you become more in touch with values and priorities, your body will tell you when a situation arises that goes against them. Pay attention to these signs and don’t override them.

  3. Communicate clearly – If you need to say no to an invitation or person, be direct and clear in your communication. Clearly communicating where you’re coming from and what you need from that person moving forward in order to maintain your recovery is the best way to shape your surroundings. There’s no knowing how this person will react, but it is important to remember that their reaction is not your responsibility.

  4. Learn to say no

  5. Work with a therapist

  6. Get reassurance from your support system – One of the beauties of setting boundaries is that you get a new chance to see who shares your values or supports you in them. Just like your gut tells you when you’re entering a situation that goes against your values, it also tells you when you’re entering one that feeds them. Integrating these relationships and communities into your life is another part of building a life that makes room for your strengths.

This video describes the process of setting boundaries in early recovery in more depth.

[1] McConnell, D., & Snoek, A. (2018). The importance of self-narration in recovery from addiction. Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology, 25(3), 31-44. 

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