Denial is a psychological defense wherein a person refuses to accept a reality that changes their view of themselves, and it is the number one obstacle to addiction recovery. Addiction denial isn’t just the refusal to recognize that there is any problem at all, it is any lie, omission, justification, exaggeration, or other kind of distortion that a person with substance use disorder employs to allow themselves to continue drinking or using drugs.
The repeated misuse of substances leads to alterations in your brain that effectively train you to feel like drugs or alcohol are essential to your survival. Denial is a defense mechanism that protects you from facts, awareness, or insights that threaten your security and sense of wellbeing. Therefore, it’s only natural that denial is an inherent part of the disease of addiction, and that overcoming denial is a crucial step in addiction recovery.
Overcoming Denial Facilitates Addiction Recovery
Not everyone with substance use disorder is in complete addiction denial. You may recognize that you get into fights more often when you drink, or that your drug use has caused your driver’s license to be taken away, while at the same time seriously underestimating the damage that addiction is inflicting upon your physical and mental health, your quality of life, your relationships, and your future.
The defense mechanism of denial is not exclusive to addiction, either. People with other chronic diseases such as cancer, HIV/AIDS, or diabetes use denial to avoid feeling vulnerable, to fend off a fear of death, or to maintain a feeling of control. Some patients may go so far as to skip insulin injections, or fail to report a serious symptom to their doctor.
Signs You Are in Denial
The following signs can be used as an addiction denial worksheet. Look them over with an honest eye and check off how many apply to you.
Refusing to even think about the fact that your drug and alcohol use has become a serious problem can lead to even more substance use, as you try to quiet the voice in your brain that insists you need help. You quickly change the subject or play dumb whenever someone brings up your substance use, and if pretending or changing the subject doesn’t keep the discussion at bay, you start a fight or create a problem or crisis that has to be dealt with.
When you can no longer deny that a problem exists, you start to minimize your addiction. You claim that you just like to have a little fun sometimes or you only do it every now and then for stress relief. Besides it’s really no big deal. You don’t drink or use much, or you know how to do it and stay safe. If you can’t deny the evidence of major consequences resulting from your substance use, you insist that it was only a one-time thing, and you will never let it happen again.
Another way to avoid dealing with your substance use disorder is to blame your drinking or using on someone or something else, as if it’s just a temporary issue that will pass when the situation changes. Addiction denial insists that if your job weren’t so stressful, or your spouse were more understanding, you wouldn’t have to turn to alcohol or drugs, and as soon as you get that promotion, or your spouse stops nagging you, you’ll have no difficulty quitting.
Similar to blaming, rationalizing finds an explanation for why you drink or use that justifies continuing to do it. You may bring up a bad childhood, an anxiety disorder, or physical pain to explain what’s behind your substance use. Because these explanations are often based in reality, they can lead others to enable your drinking or drug use out of sympathy.
Focusing on other people who appear to have more serious drug or alcohol problems than yourself is a very convenient form of denial, as you probably know many other people who misuse substances. You can easily point to someone who lost their job and their apartment in the same week due to drug use, and then claim that you’re fine, because you’re still gainfully employed and own your own house. The only problem is, there are many different ways that addiction can impact your life and the lives of the people around you. Just because you can cope better than someone else in a particular area, doesn’t mean that your substance use isn’t a serious problem in need of treatment.
5 Reasons to Stop Your Addiction Denial
1. To get the treatment you need.
Addiction recovery can’t even begin until you admit you have a problem. Allow yourself to recognize the scope of the consequences caused by your substance use—from damaged relationships, to legal trouble, to neglected responsibilities, to declining health. Recognize how your life has come to revolve around drugs or alcohol, trapping you in a miserable cycle that only gets worse as time goes on. You can’t keep going at this pace.
2. To heal relationships.
Addiction denial not only is an obstacle to addiction recovery, it is a major stumbling block in relationships. Your loved ones have been hurt by your substance use, and your relationships with them have been damaged. Overcoming denial will allow you to acknowledge their pain and heal the connection. It will also help them to feel safe enough to honestly face the negative part they may have played in your relationship. Overcoming addiction denial allows you to be more present for your family and friends, creating a closer and more positive connection.
3. To free yourself from shame.
Addiction denial is essentially living a lie, which is an immense drain on your energy and wellbeing. It also reinforces the stigma of substance use disorder, and the mistaken belief that it is a moral failing or weakness, instead of the chronic disease it is. Feeling shame about things you have done because of your addiction—such as failing to fulfill your potential, hurting the people you love, and feeling incapable of controlling your own actions—is a natural reaction to the disease. But denying the disease exists only allows that shame to fester under the surface and become toxic. Facing the fact of your substance use disorder will help you to accept the chronic nature of the disease, and the role it has played in your life. It will also help you accept yourself, and to recognize that you are not your addiction, and you have so much to be grateful for.
4. To deal with the issues behind the addiction.
Substance use and denial are two related forms of escape that you can use to hide from or self-medicate your problems. For many people, addiction goes hand in hand with a co-occurring disorder such as anxiety or depression, and long-term substance abuse can actually cause mental health issues. When you let go of addiction denial, you allow yourself to discover and heal the underlying issues that are keeping you from living a happier life.
5. To support long-term addiction recovery.
Denial isn’t just something that you overcome at the start of addiction recovery and then never worry about again; it is a major part of the disease of addiction that you need to stay aware of. Later on, in recovery, addiction denial can resurface as leaving counseling prematurely, or relapsing because you believe you can handle recreational drugs or drinking. To create and nurture a happier life that isn’t ruled by addiction, you need to maintain a level of honesty with yourself that might not always be comfortable, but will always be healthy.
How to Help Someone in Denial
One way to help a loved one get past addiction denial is to allow them to experience the consequences of their substance abuse. If you are always following behind a person with substance use disorder, apologizing for their behavior, cleaning up their messes, and taking care of the things that they neglect, you make it easy for them to maintain their denial.
The next step is to try and communicate to your loved one. If at all possible, this should be done when they are sober, and you should do your best to stay firm while making it clear that you are motivated by love. A good time to talk about addiction is right after they have experienced a negative consequence related to their substance use, so that they can be motivated by regret for their actions. If their denial is especially entrenched, you may want to have them look over an addiction denial worksheet like the above list of signs, so they can learn to identify the many forms of addiction denial.
Remember throughout that your loved one with addiction is suffering a disease. They did not choose to become addicted, so avoid blaming or attacking. Approach them with sympathy and understanding, using “I” language, such as “I feel,” or “I’m concerned.” Also, be sure to discuss specific situations or events. Speaking in generalities makes you easy to dismiss; specific examples are much more difficult to deny.
If you aren’t able to break through their denial the first time you try, don’t be too discouraged. You have planted an idea that might grow into realization and acceptance later.
I’ve admitted I have an addiction – what next?
Finding good addiction treatment is the next step after overcoming denial, and the first step of addiction treatment is detox. It’s usually best to detox under a doctor’s supervision, whether it’s simply tapering off of drugs according to a doctor’s schedule, or checking into an inpatient program that provides medical detox services.
Early in addiction recovery, denial is a central concern—and, in fact, it stays an area of concern throughout treatment. Counselors will help you gradually break through your remaining denial by gently confronting you about your addictive behaviors and the consequences of your substance use disorder. Group therapy is an especially good venue for getting past addiction denial.
Many people do not enter treatment entirely of their own volition and are still in active denial when they begin recovery. You may have been urged into rehab by family members, or even mandated by a legal ruling. Even if you did voluntarily choose treatment, you may believe that once you’ve had a long enough break from substances, you’ll be able to drink or use again in a casual, non-problematic way. Breaking through these different kinds of denial is essential to your health and happiness. Group therapy is often the most effective way to do this. Because many addicted people have less than positive associations with authority figures, you will probably be more open to advice, insights, and support offered from a peer, rather than a counselor. Group therapy also makes you a part of the culture of recovery, which allows you to experience your life through an entirely new and much healthier worldview.
Long-term Health and Happiness
Addiction recovery is about breaking down denial concerning your problems and faults, but it is also about building you up by breaking down your denial of your own strengths, talents, feelings, and aspirations. Long-term health and happiness can only be achieved through finding a way to create a better life for yourself—a life that belongs to you, and not to your addiction.
Denial management is an ongoing process in addiction recovery—a lifelong process. Not only do you need to stay wary of misleading thoughts like, “I’m in a good place now, I can have a drink or two,” which can easily lead to relapse, you need to be wary of more insidious forms of denial. People with substance use disorder are good at suppressing or hiding their own feelings, minimizing the stress they are experiencing, or attempting to ignore conflicts or issues that could grow into crisis situations. Continual self-assessment and honesty is key to achieving and maintaining a better life.