What is Denial?
Addicts are often out of touch with the unforeseen costs of their behavior. They routinely ignore warning signs that seem obvious to their friends and family – trouble in school, job loss, car wrecks, ruined relationships, financial problems, illness, arrest, etc. They either ignore these issues or they place the blame on others, continuing their problematic behaviors without a second thought. This is their denial. It is almost as if they are unable to see (or they refuse to see) the destructive effects that their drinking, drug use, and other addictive behaviors have not only on themselves, but on those who love them.
The simple fact is addicts rationalize, minimize, and justify their actions. In other words, they “deny” that their addiction is causing problems in their life, or that there even is an addiction. This denial usually builds slowly over time through a series of small, seemingly innocuous internal deceits. Typically, each of these lies has its own rationalization (more internal deceit). Based on this intricately constructed alternate reality, the addict’s behaviors seem utterly reasonable to the addict. Yes, the rest of the world can easily see through the smokescreen, but the addict cannot (or will not). Usually it is only when the addict’s functional world disintegrates into an overwhelming morass of highly depressing consequences – when his or her life devolves into chaos and overwhelming crisis – that the individual is finally willing to examine the reality of his or her addiction.
For addicted men and women, denial takes many forms, the most common of which are listed below.
- Entitlement: I work like a dog to provide for my family, and I deserve a little something just for me. Stopping off after work for a drink (or twelve) is my reward.
- Minimization: I’m no different than anyone else. Everybody parties. Plus, I don’t drive when I’m wasted so what’s the problem?
- Justification: My life is awful. I’m out of work and living with my parents. Getting drunk and smoking a little dope is the only fun I get.
- Blame: My boss is a jerk, and my husband is cheating on me. If they were better people, I wouldn’t drink so much.
- Rationalization: I’m working fifty hours per week, coaching my kid’s soccer team, and trying to keep my wife happy. I need the boost I get from cocaine.
In treatment, addicts new to recovery are often asked to write down all the reasons their behavior is “OK” or “not their fault.” In other words, they are asked to spell out the rationalizations, justifications, and minimizations that comprise their denial. Then they are asked to read these thoughts out loud, in front others. Sometimes one excuse, by itself, will seem reasonable. Maybe two or three excuses strung together will still sound at least slightly plausible. But when the list of justifications goes on and on, eventually it begins to sound crazy – even to the addict. This process alone is sometimes enough to break through an addict’s denial.
Ultimately, the most effective tool for breaking through denial is addiction-focused group therapy. This format is ideal for confronting the rationalizations and justifications commonly used by addicts. As an individual’s lies and deceits surface, other addicts are able to point out the flaws. These group-level confrontations are powerful not only for the addict being confronted, but for the group members doing the confronting. Through such interaction, everyone present can see that denial is built on a foundation of small, seemingly innocuous falsehoods that somehow combine to make irrational behavior seem rational (to the addict). Twelve-step meetings, especially when combined with individual and group therapy, are also effective in this regard.