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The Power Of Denial In Addiction

by Landmark Recovery

February 12, 2019
A woman standing in an alley thinking about her addiction

Asking a family member or friend to enter drug and alcohol rehab is not an easy task. Many people are not ready to admit when they have a problem, let alone spend one to three months in a rehab facility. Denial is one of the strongest barriers to treatment that keeps people from getting the help they need.

According to research from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, most people who need treatment for addiction will not receive it. About 1 in 8 people end up getting the kind of clinical help they need to overcome addiction. Statistically, the primary reason that the vast majority of people (94%) do not seek treatment for substance abuse issues is that most people don’t think they need treatment.

As the loved one of an addict, it may be difficult to entirely understand things from their perspective. While the problems may seem painfully apparent on the outside, they may be willfully ignored by those who are causing them. Unfortunately, drugs and alcohol can inure us to the pain and suffering around us, clouding our judgement and interfering with our ability to think clearly.


Signs of Denial

A woman standing in an alley thinking about her addiction

Trauma and mood disorders may also play a role, as co-occurring disorders are not uncommon among substance abusers. An individual struggling with substance use disorders may hold certain beliefs about their condition. For example:


Not Caring

Many people struggling with addiction have reached the point where no longer care about getting sober. They have relegated all other priorities in their life underneath getting high and do not care about the damage they are causing to themselves or others.


Mistaken Belief in Control

They may also falsely believe that they are still in control. Some people believe that no matter how bad it has gotten, they can still quit if they want to. This is true for a very small minority of people. The truth is that many have lost control and need help.


No Harm No Foul

They could also believe that their addiction is not harming anyone else. After all, if they are the only ones shooting up, getting drunk, and facing the consequences, why should anyone else be concerned? The truth is that many people struggling with addiction do not see how their actions affect the people around them. Sometimes it takes an intervention to help them see the damage they are causing.


False Victim-hood

Some people may also view themselves as victims. In this case, they are apt to think they have to use drugs because the environment around them is too hard to cope without it. They may think the stress of life is unreasonable without drugs and alcohol. They may think the world is out to get them.

Regardless of the exact reasons that someone becomes addicted, odds are that they are not fully aware of how much danger they are in. Either that, or they are unwilling to face it. No matter how you cut it, the outcome is the same: Denial. They deny that they need help because they are denying that there is a problem with their situation. Overcoming this roadblock is often the hardest step in recovery. Denial about addiction can cause someone to rationalize any number of bad behaviors, such as:

  • Manipulating loves ones
  • Accusing loved ones of being selfish
  • Denying addiction
  • Blaming loved ones for their problems
  • Disregarding harmful and damaging actions

Any of the above behaviors can be caused by denial. If your loved one displays any of these behaviors, they may be in denial about their addiction. Letting this behavior continue could lead to even worse consequences down the road.


What Denial Does to People

A man sitting on a sidewalk thinking about his addiction

Denial causes continued destruction to the ones affected by addiction. To be in denial is often blatantly obvious to loved ones or friends of an addict, but can also be not so clear to the person addicted to drugs or alcohol. There are three several signs of denial, and it’s important to know what they are so that you can help your loved one acknowledge that a problem exists, take the first step to overcoming addiction, and stay motivated to a maintain a sober lifestyle long-term.


The Ongoing Damage of Denial

Continual denial of addiction is something that will get worse with time. It may even continue into the first few days and even weeks of treatment. Examining your own bullshit can be the most difficult part about recovery, but it’s like pulling out a bullet. It’s better to do it sooner before it festers and gets worse.


The Distortion of Denial

When a person continually denies the reality of their addiction, they try to get their loved ones to also buy into their bullshit. This may lead friends and family members to buy into the false perception of the situation or doubt themselves. This distortion of reality stems from the addict’s own warped understanding and outlook. As a result, destruction and chaos continue.


The Isolation of Denial

Someone struggling with addiction gradually becomes more and more withdrawn into their own black hole of addiction. They could be sick and tired of dealing with others or with being confronted about their addiction, so they begin to pull away and seek isolation. They may choose to only spend time with other people who abuse drugs like they do in order to escape the shame.


Denial and Codependency

As you try to help your loved one to see the reality of the situation, you yourself may start to notice codependent behaviors that are unhealthy and harmful. Codependents may often feel like they are never good enough and compare themselves to others. Sometimes this is disguised as narcissism and thinking extremely highly of oneself while genuinely feeling unlovable beneath the surface. Codependents will feel sensations of guilt and perfectionism. They find that perfectionism is one of the only ways they can feel good about themselves, even if it is only momentary. Here are common signs of codependency:

  • Low Self Esteem
  • Poor Boundaries
  • People Pleasing
  • Reactive
  • Care taking
  • Controlling
  • Poor Communication
  • Obsessions
  • Dependency
  • Denial
  • Intimacy Issues

The best way to push back against codependent behaviors is to disconnect entirely and let your loved one experience the consequences of their decisions. While this may feel difficult and painful, it is often the only way for someone to experience reality and finally seek out the help that they need.


Helping Someone Who is in Denial

A couple hugging because they are working through their addiction

So with all this information about what denial manifests as, you’re probably wondering how you are supposed to help your loved one when there is a problem. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed in the face of all this, but there are several practical ways you can bring positive change to you and your loved one’s life.


Organize an Intervention

People suffering from addiction often have trouble coming to terms with the reality of their affliction. Many do not accept that they are affected by a mental disease. Even more refuse to acknowledge the severity of the problems that their dependence on substances creates. An intervention is a tried and true method for friends and families of addicts to encourage a loved one to seek treatment. An intervention is a carefully planned process by which friends and family of an addict may confront that person about their addiction. It involves meeting at a pre-arranged date and time and most often is done without letting the addict know until the moment it begins. Friends and family are then encouraged to express their feelings and concerns towards the afflicted person’s condition in a positive and structured manner. The most successful forms of intervention usually involve a large amount of forethought and careful planning towards structure, what people plan to say, and the next steps following the intervention.


Court-Ordered Treatment

A gavel used in a courtroom

According to the National Institute of Justice, there are more than 3,000 drug courts within the United States. These entities help manage and sentence drug offenders to complete court-ordered treatment, work with specialized caseworkers, and undergo randomized and regular drug testing. Court ordered rehab offers individuals an alternative form of sentencing for any kind of drug-related crime, meaning instead of serving prison time they may be able to get the help they need to turn their life around.

In the states of Kentucky and Ohio, individuals can request court-ordered treatment for people outside of active criminal charges. Known as Casey’s Law, this act enables close friends, loved ones, and relatives of addicts to legally mandate people to attend a treatment program. The process involves petitioning a court to judge the severity of the afflicted person’s addiction and rendering a judgment on whether to commit that person and to what extent their treatment should encapsulate.



For friends and family members of an alcoholic, one of the most difficult and important aspects of recovery is learning to let go and “let God”. In the Al-Anon program, this concept is known as “detachment”. Detachment teaches those in some kind of relationship with an alcoholic to detach from their loved one’s addiction in a healthy manner.

A major component of Al-Anon is learning that those who live with another person’s alcoholism did not cause, cannot control, and cannot stop their loved one’s drinking. Detachment teaches us how to relinquish our obsession with the alcoholic’s behavior, letting go of our attempts to control or influence them, and allowing ourselves to live happier, more manageable lives.

Having some kind of relationship with an alcoholic often involves trying to care or manage their addiction. The stress and exhaustion of caring for or about someone with the chronic disease of alcoholism can lead to frustration, anxiety, depression, and even unsafe living conditions. For this reason, detachment from the situation is one of the most important steps for achieving emotional well being.


The Psycho-dynamics of Addiction

Denial is defined as the selective ignorance of information. It means refusing acknowledgement of reality and is a form of self deception that detaches us from reality. Sometimes this is done in order to maintain positive self image. Psychological processes such as repression, forgetfulness, and distraction all contribute to the psycho-dynamic of addiction. Most of these psychological processes are subconscious, not deliberate.

Traditional psychology holds that denial is a defense mechanism. In other words, individuals with addiction problems usually use denial in order to stop threatening emotions from entering our conscious. It may be difficult to cope with negative states, so instead people create fictional states of reality that better suit them. Keeping out unacceptable feelings usually results in the development of a “false self.” The price for this type of defense mechanism is ironically the inability to seek out help. For instance, an alcoholic will dismiss that his or her excessive drinking is a real problem.

After all, admitting that negative consequences arising from substance abuse are real, it becomes necessary to end substance use. However, quitting will cause pain and distress. Denial thus protects people from negative experiences and the reality of one’s situation, avoiding pain and distress.

Over time, individuals struggling with substance abuse will come to be cognitively impaired by substance abuse. Chronic drug and alcohol abuse has been associated with impaired self-awareness and difficulties with memory recall and empathy. Future consequences tend to become unconcerning. The benefits of drug and alcohol usage, immediate, temporary pleasure, become more valuable than future rewards such as health, happiness, peace, and financial stability.

Ultimately, denial is central to the core of addiction and why addicts continue to persist in the face of harmful evidence. Indeed, the first step of Alcoholics Anonymous is to admit that you have a problem and begin to seek out help. Since individuals use denial to protect themselves from the pain of reality, the individual suffering from substance abuse needs to be given new tools for coping effectively with that pain.


In Conclusion

At Landmark Recovery, we have inpatient and outpatient facilities with knowledgeable staff who are dedicated to helping you get back to a healthy lifestyle. We approach drug and alcohol treatment from the perspective that everyone is different, and requires a unique and ongoing solution. Reach out to Landmark Recovery today to begin your journey to a better tomorrow.

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About the Author

Landmark Recovery

Landmark Recovery

Landmark Recovery was founded with a determination to make addiction treatment accessible for all. Through our integrated treatment programs, we've helped thousands of people choose recovery over addiction and get back to life on their own terms. We're on a mission to save one million lives over the next century. We encourage all those struggling with substance use to seek professional help.