The Role of Denial In Addiction

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By: Renaissance Recovery

Medically Reviewed by: Diana Vo, LMFT

Last Updated: 7/1/2021

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Authored By: Joe Gilmore

Table of Contents

Denial often plays a central role in addiction, and it can be instrumental in addicts persisting with alcohol abuse or substance abuse despite disastrous consequences.

In the first stage of recovery from addiction, denial routinely comes up as an early obstacle preventing awareness and acknowledgement of the problem. Clearly, someone who does not admit that a problem exists will not be in a position to solve that problem.

Now, before we explore some of the most frequently exhibited signs of denial during recovery, let’s get started with a quick definition.

What Is Denial?

Denial in its broader sense is a refusal to concede the truth alongside an inclination to distort reality.

When the word denial is used in a psychological setting, the state of denial serves as a defense mechanism for the person struggling with addiction. Someone affected by denial routinely rejects any element of reality that doesn’t neatly align with their worldview. This skewing of reality takes place subconsciously.

Although most people engage in denial about things that make them feel uncomfy, denial takes on a more rigid and extreme form in addicts.

What this means is that someone who is clearly dependent on drink of drugs claiming otherwise doesn’t necessarily mean they’re lying. Often, it’s not a case of your loved one blatantly refusing to face black and white facts. Instead, they might be behaving based on a subconscious psychological strategy.

If you believe your loved one is addicted to drink or drugs but they won’t accept this, take a step back before accusing them of lying.

Now, as an all-purpose defense mechanism, denial is not without merit. Sometimes, for someone who needs to make sweeping, demanding changes, the state of denial serves to allow some time for adjustment. Also, denial can effectively help people to sidestep rash decisions.

Unfortunately, when someone is bogged down with addiction, denial simply prolongs the suffering and renders it impossible to kickstart meaningful recovery.

Now you have a clear overview of what denial is, broadly, and within a psychological setting, we’ll explore some of the common signs of denial you might witness in someone addicted to drink or drugs. Before that, though, how might you establish that your loved one has an addiction and needs treatment?

Signs of Addiction

The markers of addiction will vary significantly from person to person.

Here are some general signs that often point toward drinking or drug use turning into abuse or addiction:

  • Refusal to stop drinking or using drugs despite serious health consequences
  • Inability to stop drinking or taking drugs. Sometimes, there will be unsuccessful attempts to discontinue use
  • Loss of interest in normal activities and hobbies. When casual drug use becomes dependence and addiction, it’s normal for addicts to start socializing with drug buddies in place of their existing friends. Also watch out for your loved one avoiding situations where no drink or drugs are available
  • Suspicion your loved one is lying. Here is where denial is potentially at work
  • Financial difficulties often indicate a problem with drink or drugs that’s spiraling out of control
  • Manifesting withdrawal symptoms, physical or psychological, suggests addiction has taken hold already. From moodiness and carvings to resentment, insomnia, and depression, keep an eye out for these changes in your loved one
  • Discovering a stash of drink or drugs suggests your loved one understands they have a problem, but they are not ready to deal with it. Again, denial is coming to the fore

So, now you have an idea of some of the common signifiers of addiction, how can you establish when denial enters the fray?

For an individual struggling with the early stages of addiction, sometimes even the concept of recovery is too much for them to take onboard.

The easiest thing is to put off thinking about detox until the next day. This form of procrastination is rooted in subconscious denial.

Now, you may see your loved one demonstrably impacted by addiction to drink or drugs, but they might not see it that way. Think of denial as a subconscious mechanism and you can better understand if your addicted love one denies point blank that they have a problem.

If it’s you struggling with an addiction to drink or drugs, accepting that you are in a state of denial is a crucial touchstone on the path to embracing a sober life.

Next, we’ll highlight some of the most common signs of denial exhibited by addicts.

Common Signs of Denial

  • Accusatory attitude: If you confront a loved one about a suspected addiction to drink or drugs, they may condemn or judge you in an attempt to deflect attention from the issue at hand. This is a common by-product of denial
  • Blaming others: Addicts in denial will often attach blame to others for the damage that’s been wreaked by their excessive drinking or drug abuse
  • Manipulative tactics: Some addicts will play the martyr while others might style themselves as the victim of circumstance. If you start noticing your loved one using manipulative tactics, they could be exhibiting signs of denial
  • Justifying behavior: Have you ever heard your loved one tell you they could stop any time they needed to, but they don’t want to because they are in control? The thing is, actions speak louder than words. If your loved one is clearly suffering from an addiction to drink or drugs yet still justifying their behavior, this is likely denial at work
  • Disregard for harm caused to others: A classic marker of denial is the total and uncharacteristic disregard for the harm being caused to others by the addiction
  • Bracketing reality: Look out for your loved one capitalizing on days when they are too sick to drink or use drugs and using this as evidence of their supposed control over their addiction. Ask them why they were so sick that they were unable to consume alcohol in the first place. Was it because they were binge drinking?
  • Outright denial: If your loved one is point-blank denying that a problem exists despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, this is an unequivocal sign of denial
If you have a loved one struggling with dependence on drink or drugs, do you see any of the above signs in them?

More importantly, what can you do to help them, or to help yourself?

What To Say To a Loved One In Denial of Addiction

Trying to initiate a conversation about addiction is not straightforward. It requires delicacy, finesse, and patience.

Never under any circumstances attempt to start this dialogue when your loved one is drunk or high. All you’re likely to achieve is creating a hostile and unproductive atmosphere with a strong chance of being confronted with outright denial.

You shouldn’t try to over analyze what you’re going to say. Your core goal should be to express your concern honestly and lovingly. There is no single right thing to say, you just need to get this message of concern and support across.

One tactic that can often yield dividends is to approach your loved one in the aftermath of an incident they deeply regret. Whether they’re feeling remorseful for shouting at you once again, or licking their wounds having lost their wallet yet again, take advantage of this. You shouldn’t be worried about using tactics like this that you might consider underhand. The end result is all that counts.

It can sometimes help to involve a third-party who understands addiction and recovery.

Do not attempt this if your loved one is liable to feel like they’re being ganged up on. You would only be confronted with more denial in this case.

Now, addiction is understood today as a disease. Denial is a symptom of that disease. Your loved one may be behaving badly, but that doesn’t make them a bad person. Blaming them and criticizing them will do nothing to improve the situation even if you feel better for a few minutes. You’ll likely make your loved one feel guilty, which might make them dive further into denial.

Once you’re speaking with your loved one frankly, be specific. Don’t tell them they’re drinking too much. Tell them instead how terrified you were when they drove to the bar even though they were already drunk, how you were tempted to call the police but didn’t want them getting into trouble.

You should explain how your loved one’s drug use or drinking is impacting:

  • Family
  • Health
  • Leisure activities
  • Career
  • Relationships
As you outline to your loved one how their drinking or drug use is affecting the people and things they most care about, watch how they react.

With this initial dialogue, you should be hoping to sow the initial seed of recovery. That seed is likely to need some time to germinate. Immediate resolution is improbable. You should also not be surprised if you find your loved one still in denial of their addiction. Remember, denial is a symptom of addiction.

Make sure that lines of communication remain open at all times once you have told your loved one what you want them to hear.

Now, having determined that your loved one is in denial, how about some viable strategies to move beyond this barrier to treatment and recovery?

5 Ways to Deal with Denial

The inbuilt flaw of addiction denial is that, since it’s a subconscious mechanism, the person doesn’t know what they are doing.

This doesn’t mean there are no solutions for overcoming this obstacle blocking the path to sobriety, though.

Many of these methods will be poorly received, and they won’t all work for everyone. See which of the following might be fruitful for dealing with denial of addiction in your loved one.

  1. Speaking with others in recovery
  2. Speaking with a therapist
  3. Journaling
  4. Attending recovery meetings
  5. Stop insulating your loved one from the negative consequences of addiction

1) Speaking with others in recovery

Do you have friends and family who have successfully recovered from addiction? If so, asking them to speak with your loved one might be beneficial. There’s every chance your addicted loved one will feel some common ground with someone who has personally experienced what they are going through.

2) Speaking with a therapist

You should never attempt to make an appointment for your loved one to see an addiction therapist without their consent. The more you try to force an issue like this, the more resistance you are likely to meet from someone in denial of their addiction.

Instead, start throwing the idea into conversation and assess your loved one’s response. If they seem amenable, you can schedule an appointment with ease and help them on their way to recovery. If they seem resistant, backpedal and try again later.

3) Journaling

Often, someone in denial of their addiction may genuinely not realize the extent to which they are drinking or using drugs.

If you encourage them to keep a private and honest journal documenting how much they drink or use drugs, this is a crucial first step to helping them better understand the extent of the problem. Once they start seeing their intake itemized in their own handwriting, this can often illuminate a drinking problem or a drug problem.

4) Attending recovery meetings

Maybe your loved one is convinced they don’t have an addiction to drink or drugs. Perhaps they don’t have any intention of getting sober.

In either case, attending just a single 12-step meeting like AA or NA might be an instructive experience.

5) Stop insulating your loved one from the negative consequences of addiction

Now, we understand it’s tempting and natural to be protective of your loved one as they are struggling with addiction. The truth is, if you enable this behavior, you’re simply perpetuating a vicious cycle.

You should stop furnishing them with money if you believe they’re using it to buy drink or drugs.

Stop making excuses for them, and remove the safety net they have been relying on to continue drinking to excess or using drugs.


Not all of these strategies will work in all situations. The best approach is to explore some of the above ideas casually with your loved one without using any kind of pressure at all. You can then test the waters and assess which approaches might be worth pursuing.

Helping Someone in Denial of Addiction to Recover

When you look at a loved one exhibiting outward signs of denial, this doesn’t mean they haven’t already thought about getting help for their addiction.

What can you do, then, to make this happen?

Well, you should take full advantage of the power of words. Impress upon your loved one how much you love them and how concerned you are. Emphasize the extent to which you’ll support them during the ongoing process of recovery.

Give your loved one relevant contact details for recovery meetings, therapists, and any other appropriate medical professionals. Do this with no strings or pressure attached.

You could also put them in touch with a treatment center like Renaissance where they can follow a structured inpatient or outpatient program following medical detox.

If you need any further information, call our friendly team today at 866.330.944 and your loved one will be in safe hands.866.330.9449

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Diana Vo, LMFT

Diana is an addiction expert and licensed marriage and family therapist who has been in the field of mental health for over 10 years.

Joseph Gilmore

Joseph Gilmore has been in the addiction industry for three years with experience working for facilities all across the country