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Addiction: What Is Denial?

Medically Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD on May 10, 2021

An important first step in addressing addiction is to recognize and accept how alcohol and substance use is impacting your life. But if you’re in denial about whether your alcohol and substance use is actually unhealthy and causing you problems, it can prevent you from getting help.

Learn how to recognize denial, better understand how it affects the cycle of addiction, and how to help yourself or someone you know get past it.

What Is Denial?

Denial is when someone ignores, downplays, or distorts reality. You may use denial as a way to protect yourself from having to see, deal with, or accept the truth about what’s happening in your life.

People who overuse alcohol and drugs tend to have a hard time dealing with their emotions. You may rely on alcohol and drugs to help you escape from your feelings. Denial is another way to ignore problems.

When someone with a substance use or alcohol use disorder is in denial, it doesn’t mean they can’t see the way they’re using alcohol and drugs. They may instead see the drugs and alcohol as an escape from their problems.

Sometimes denial can be helpful for a little while when dealing with a stressful or traumatic situation. But staying in denial is harmful because it prevents you from seeking help or addressing a situation.

How Does Denial Play Into Addiction?

Addiction can be a never-ending cycle because addictive substances are both the comfort and the problem for the person who is addicted to them.

In most cases, someone who relies on alcohol and drugs will continue to be in denial about their addiction until their problems become impossible to ignore. This could happen in the form of an overdose or other major health event, legal trouble, or relationship strain or loss.

How to Recognize Denial

It can be challenging to know if you are in denial. If someone you trust has suggested you are, take time to step back and examine the situation from afar. Try to think objectively about the little and big ways alcohol or drugs play a role in your life.

Also consider if you think about your drinking and substance use in the following ways:

  • You minimize the role alcohol or drugs play in your life because you’re still able to take care of your responsibilities. “It doesn’t matter if I sometimes oversleep after a night of drinking, because I always get my work done.”
  • You compare your alcohol or drug use to others. “I don’t do as much as other people.”
  • You blame others for your problems. (“If my parents hadn’t ____, I wouldn’t be____.” Or “If my job wasn’t so stressful, I wouldn’t need to drink so much.”)
  • You rationalize that you deserve a drink because you had a long day, completed a hard task, need to relax, etc.

If you’ve had thoughts similar to the above, you may want to speak with someone you trust or a therapist to further explore your habits. They can help you recognize and overcome denial, improve your habits, or get help for a substance use disorder.

How to Get Past Denial

Journaling about your feelings, fears, and recent life challenges can help you see the role alcohol and drugs are playing in your life. Consider what could happen if you continue to use alcohol and other drugs in the same way. What could improve if you were to change how you use alcohol and drugs? Are you using them to deal with something else that is going on?

Therapists, support groups, and addiction centers and programs can be helpful in not only helping you create healthier habits and address an addiction, but they can help you deal with the underlying issues -- such as past trauma, stress, anxiety, or mental health conditions -- that can lead you to drink or use drugs.

If you think someone you know is in denial about their drug or alcohol use, try to be understanding and supportive.

Let them know you’re there for them and are worried. Try to use “I” statements and avoid using labels such as alcoholic. Avoid being judgmental, but show support and offer suggestions about ways or places they can get help. These conversations can be tricky and emotional, so you may want to involve a therapist or counselor.

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

Tarzana Treatment Centers: “Understanding Alcoholism and Drug Addiction – Denial.”

Mayo Clinic: “Denial: When it helps, when it hurts.”

S.A. Lifeline Foundation: “7 common denial statements of an addict – Part 1.”

Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neuroscience: “Addiction Denial and Cognitive Dysfunction.”

American Addiction Centers: “How to Talk to an Alcoholic: Reaching Out, Connecting, and Offering Help.”

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