Understanding and Moving Through Denial

Denial is a big part of addiction but quite often the word ‘Denial’ gets confused with the word ‘lying’. Many times Denial is a defense mechanism we use when we feel threatened or intimidated. When we refer to Addiction & Denial, there are many forms denial can take and it’s important to understand the differences. This is important in order to help oneself who is suffering from Addiction or someone we care about.
Just about anytime we approach the subject of denial regarding alcoholics’ and addicts’ substance abuse, they become defensive. One reason for that is because they mistakenly associate the word denial with the word lying. This is unfortunate, because denial and lying are two very different things.
Lying is something that a person does consciously—something that he or she is aware of on a conscious level. People know when they’re lying. They may not be able to control their lying, but they are aware of it.

24 hour addiction helplineDenial, on the other hand, occurs on a level below consciousness—on a subconscious or unconscious level. It is a psychological process that acts to block out reality—that is, to block out conscious awareness within the individual of something that feels threatening to that individual. People honestly do not know when they are “in denial.” It’s not that denial is invisible. It isn’t. We can often see denial as it occurs in other people; we just can’t see it in ourselves.
In terms of problems associated with alcohol and drug abuse—be it our own or that of someone who is close to us—denial manifests in one or more ways. These include the following:

  • Failure to see that a problem exists at all (total blindness ).
  • Failure to recognize the extent or severity of the problem (partial blindness ).
  • Failure to see the connection between the substance abuse and the problems that it precipitates (an astigmatism ).
  • Failure to understand that one needs help dealing with the problem (false pride ).


Is Denial Common Among Substance Abusers?

Denial is so common among individuals who have become addicted to alcohol and other drugs that addiction has been referred to as the disease of denial. Indeed, people in recovery from substance abuse are typically surprised at the depth of their denial as it unfolds before them during the recovery process.
Denial can be the fatal aspect of addiction. This is true because it leaves the alcoholic/addict vulnerable to taking greater risks for longer periods of time. It impairs judgment and results in self-delusion, preventing the addict from seeing and understanding the implications and consequences of his or her behavior until it is too late. An example is the person who honestly believes that he or she can drive just as effectively under the influence of alcohol or drugs as he/she can sober and straight. Even documented evidence to the contrary won’t persuade the individual differently.

Psychological defenses—which every living person has many of—work to keep denial active. Some of the defenses that act to keep denial alive and well are the following:

  • Rationalizing
  • Intellectualizing
  • Minimizing
  • Analyzing
  • Justifying
  • Theorizing
  • Explaining
  • Generalizing
  • Withdrawing
  • Silence
  • Defiance
  • Blaming
  • Arguing
  • Projecting
  • Looking away
  • Yawning
  • Bargaining
  • Comparing
  • Agreeing
  • Joking
  • Smiling & Laughing
  • Changing the subject
  • Glaring & Staring
  • Shouting & Intimidating

There are more, of course. Indeed, there are many more. These are just some of the most prevalent.

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Who Does Denial Effect?

Substance abuse is not the only area of people’s lives in which denial finds a life. The denial defense is one that people utilize in many different areas of their lives. In fact, people can develop and maintain denial in any circumstance or situation in which they feel threatened or afraid. Examples include the following:

  • A battered spouse fails to recognize the extent of the abuse until it results in severe consequences.
  • An individual fails to see the depth of the dysfunction in his or her primary relationship until the partner says that he/she wants to end it.
  • An individual fails to acknowledge the decline in his or her physical health until he/she falls very ill.

Movement through denial is tricky business. It requires traits that well-defended people have few of—traits such as willingness and open-mindedness. Sometimes it requires trusting relationships with other people who are willing to confront the individual honestly and openly. It always takes humility—the ability to see and accept the truth about oneself.

Where Do I Begin?

The place to start moving through denial is with the simple understanding that we have it to start with. That understanding is easier once we know that it’s not just us, but rather, denial is a universal quality among humans. “Everyone, including me, has denial. Everyone, including me, has his blind spots.”

What Next?

The next step is to consciously and repeatedly remind ourselves to consider the opinions of others with an open mind. Some people find it helpful to keep a few simple, internal questions or statements handy at all times. Examples of such statements include the following:

“What part of what he/she just said could be true?”

“If I feel this defensive, I must be hearing something that’s threatening to me. What could it be?”

“What does he/she see about me that I cannot see about myself?”

“Could I possibly be kidding myself about that?”

counselor_sideThe next step is to talk openly about the answers to those questions. We can answer our internal questions internally first, but to experience the full benefit of the process, we need to open our mouths and talk about the answers out loud with another person. That’s when denial loses its power over us and consequently, healing occurs. The only requirement is honesty.
We will never be completely free of denial. After all, it is a major part of people’s defense systems. The goal, then, should be to move through it bit by bit—honestly and systematically—and to be open to accepting help with that process. For alcoholics and addicts, the process typically does not happen automatically or magically, even after the drinking and drug use stops. Like other aspects of recovery, movement through denial takes time, patience, and willingness.