Denial in Alcoholism

Part of the definition of alcoholism is a person’s determination to drink despite the negative consequences attached to their alcohol consumption. Why, we wonder, would a person continue in a behavior that can have so many negative consequences? One reason this happens is that the person creates an illusory existence based on denial. The person may or may not be consciously denying the true state of affairs.

Not every person caught in alcoholism is able to see their own life from an outside point of view. They cannot deny an arrest for DUI, but they may explain it as an unfortunate accident or something that could have happened to anyone. They may not even be fully aware of how often they drink. Consciously or not, they refuse to keep track. Some drinkers may have a suspicion that alcohol is affecting their relationships, but they quickly deny personal responsibility and find other ways to explain it. Usually, something is amiss with the other person.

For other people, a realistic understanding of their drinking problem is shielded by a peer group who shares their lifestyle. If all the family members or all the social group drink too much and too often then the person sees nothing unusual about their own habits. And, whether or not they admit it, the alcoholic frequently surrounds him/herself only with other drinkers or isolates themselves. These are all ways to deny that alcohol is a problem.

Lastly, the alcoholic may be aware of the problem, but feel powerless to change. They may realize that turning from alcohol will mean confronting personal issues that threaten to overwhelm them. The person may deny another’s suggestion that they have a drinking problem even though their words ring hollow in their own ears. The fear they have of finally dealing with guilt, failure and shame are simply too great. Failing inwardly through drinking seems preferable to failing outwardly through trying to change.

When a person is in denial, a harsh confrontation is not what will break through the wall. However the person is using denial, they are attempting to protect themselves. When they feel attacked, even when justly, this only deepens their commitment to self-protection. It is far more effective to approach the person with a mixture of allowing natural consequences and a show of concern.

It is not unloving to refuse to mute the consequences of drinking. It is unloving to appear condescending and uncaring. Treat the person with alcoholism as you would a person with any other chronic illness; with interest, care and encouragement. Sometimes people with physical diseases also employ denial for some of the very same reasons. Approach the person with alcoholism with determined, firm gentleness and walls of denial may melt.