For example, the behavior of a person with active alcoholism or addiction is often the proverbial white elephant in the room. Everyone sees it. Friends, family and co-workers witness a host of destructive behaviors, but the addict does not.

The disease of addiction progresses because the person is unaware of their excessive or inappropriate use of chemicals or their addictive engagement in activities like sex and gambling. They often have no insight into their own behavior or the impact it has on those around them due to the all-consuming focus of chasing their addiction. They don’t have a basic understanding of their illness, so when it is pointed out to them they may respond with, “What are you talking about?”

Denial cannot be treated as self-deception and it is not an emotion-driven response. It is an insidious blind spot that becomes more severe and impenetrable as the disease of addiction progresses.

Is Denial Ever Good?

Denial can help in early recovery because it helps people “soldier on” in a protective bubble. They can maintain a feeling that, “it’s going to be great,” and, “this is going to work out!” It can also get them into the groove of their recovery program so that they have plenty of support when they go through the emotional pain that typically rises during treatment.

How to Spot Denial

It has many faces. Denial essentially is a repertoire of defenses and maneuvers that an addicted person unwittingly sets up to protect themselves from the realization that they are dependent on a chemical or process. Here are some of the most common forms:

  1. Simple denial. Maintaining that something is not so, when in fact, it is. For example, insisting a chemical dependency is not a “problem” even when there is evidence to the contrary. It can be saying outright, “It’s not true. This isn’t happening.”
  2. Minimizing. Admitting to some degree that there is an issue but presenting it in a way that makes it seem much less serious or significant. It could be a statement like, “Yeah, I drink every night, but I have it under control.”
  3. Blaming or projecting. Denying responsibility for certain behaviors and projecting the fault elsewhere, onto someone or something. While the behavior is not denied, the person takes no responsibility for the results, seeing it as something “out there” that caused them to act a certain way.
  4. Rationalizing. A form of chalking things up to something other than chemical dependence or any other addiction. There may be many explanations, justifications, alibis and excuses. It is basically an inaccurate explanation of whatever the person claims is the cause of the behavior. For example, “I’m not gambling in Atlantic City, this is my ‘work’ to support the family.”
  5. Intellectualizing. Avoiding emotional and personal awareness of an addiction by dealing and speaking of it in general terms, intellectual analysis or theorizing.  The person will push back when someone tries to move them toward real emotions by showing they are “smarter” and understand the situation intellectually.
  6. Diversion. Changing the subject to avoid topics that are threatening, such as being confronted about chemical dependency.
  7. Hostility. Becoming angry or irritable if someone makes a reference to one’s use of alcohol or drugs or any related behavior. If someone is hostile or volatile, it makes people back off and it scares them from broaching the subject again. This helps the person avoid the issue.

People in Denial Don’t Know It

The insidious nature of denial is that it is automatic. In the earliest stages, it has less of a stronghold and the person can view their problems more realistically, with less distortion. But as addiction progresses, so can the denial. It becomes an elaborate system of defenses that shield the person from seeing what is really happening.

When spouses and family members learn to recognize the various faces of denial, as early as possible, it will give them more strength in dealing with addicted loved ones. And it can also help families know when intervention is needed. People in active addiction can disassociate and bury pain by using sex, drugs, alcohol or other compulsive behaviors to medicate. In rehab, they have the opportunity to counteract denial with the truth, in a safe space, with a great deal of support on all levels.

Antidotes to Denial

  • Comradery. Being with others in the same boat helps addicts realize that they’re not bad people, but rather that they have a disease that has caused certain behaviors. When men finally tell their secrets to each other, it is very powerful. Men in recovery try to keep each other honest.
  • Spirituality. In recovery, people often find faith or renew their belief in a higher power, even if that power is their recovery group. Studies show that faith in something greater than oneself helps some people heal. They also often come to realize they had a higher power of their own that was in them all along.
  • Hope. Getting sober is a chance for a healthier future and it begins with a kernel of hope — hoping the treatment will work and hoping therapists and comrades in recovery are going to get you through. Over time, the hope can begin to lead to faith and a stronger sense of possibility for a good life.

The most comfortable way for addicts to deal with pain has always been to turn to compulsive behaviors such as sex, drugs or alcohol because it’s familiar. But given a chance to dive into recovery, and as the veil of denial is lifted, an addict will realize that living in addiction was more miserable than whatever it was they were trying to escape.


Choose a better life. Choose recovery.