What will you do instead of getting high?

The need for strengths-based approaches to addiction

When people think about overcoming addiction they tend to think in terms of the negative things the addiction is doing. Taking a strengths based approach might be better.

If we look at addiction entirely in terms of ‘faults and failures’ how can we expect success to emerge? For success to emerge from it, we need to look at strengths and achievements.

What is really important to the person with the addiction? What strengths can they draw upon to achieve these important goals that lie beyond drugs?

Why don’t you change?

Most approaches to addiction seem to focus on why people don’t change rather than how people do change. In a paper entitled ‘Strength-Based Strategies for Prevention’, substance abuse therapist Michael D. Clark says that the traditional approach ‘believed that you had to break people down to build them back up… If they’re suffering from pathological levels of denial, well then you’ve got to get in their face and you’ve got to turn up the volume so they can hear you. That’s been refuted, but it is something that has taken on a life of its own, and we [therapists] find it hard to stop now. ‘

Quoting a fellow therapist, Clark says ‘ We cannot know another person’s thoughts and we cannot know the path for their solution right off hand.’ All people are put together differently so there cannot be one key to unlock everybody’s potential.

According to Build Motivation, a training centre for professionals, a strengths based approach to substance abuse ‘speaks to the beginning of new behaviours (“What will you do instead of getting high?”), not the end of unwanted behaviours (“Don’t use!”) … It [also] seeks intrinsic reasons for change [which are] important to the [person with the addiction].’ It moves ‘beyond compliance to focus on… change and growth.’

A strengths based approach might focus on looking at how a person had successfully dealt with difficult situations in the past, while emphasising the role that the person is to play in their own recovery.

Self direction

Build Motivation estimates that therapists were out-talking their clients at a rate of three to one. With strengths based approach, you might expect the opposite to be the case. If change is to happen, that is, if the person is to move beyond their addiction, it needs to be self directed. Self-direction is, of course, one of the recovery principles we live by at Flourish Australia.

Committing to being drug free involves not just the obvious change (stopping the drug) but changes to every facet of life. One must draw on one’s strengths to be successful in:

  • The way we deal with stress
  • Who we allow in our life
  • What we do with our free time
  • How we think about ourselves

Building a meaningful, drug free life (which includes things that you DO want to do), will protect against a return to drug use. Drugs take up a lot of time and money and there will be a lot of slack available for the addiction to reassert itself, given a chance.

Building a meaningful life beyond drugs will also help protect against the ‘relapse triggers:’ These include the following unavoidable things:

  • negative emotional states
  • positive emotional states (that is, wanting to ‘celebrate’ to feel even better)
  • physical discomfort
  • testing personal control (fooling yourself that “just one won’t hurt”)
  • cravings, temptations, urges
  • conflict with people
  • social pressures (using the excuse “everyone else is doing it!”)
  • good times.


All of these things are inevitable, and all of them are triggers. So the attempt to counteract them with a list of DON’Ts or THOU SHALT NOTs is ultimately pointless. The individual has to develop the strength to make tough decisions for themselves, and to see the traps and pit falls before it is too late.


Clark, Michael D ‘Strength-Based Strategies for Preven­tion’ downloaded from http://www.buildmotivation.com/ substance-abuse.php

Great Lakes Training Inc/ The Centre for Strength Based Strategies http://www.buildmotivation.com/substance-abuse.php

Smith, Melinda, Rachael Backwood, Jenne Segal, ‘Over­coming drug addiction, How to stop abusing drugs and start recovery’ 2017 www.Helpguide.org accessed 11 July 2017.


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