Denial is the psychological process by which human beings protect themselves
from things which threaten them by blocking knowledge of those things from their
awareness. It is a defense which distorts reality; it keeps us from feeling the
pain and uncomfortable truth about things we do not want to face. If we cannot
feel or see the consequences of our actions, then everything is fine and we can
continue to live without making any changes.
Denial comes in many forms. It is not just for chemical dependents either. If
you are human, you have denial about something--your relationships, your
behavior, your health, your family, etc. We all want everything to "be fine." We
have denial to keep us from pain.
For persons who are chemically dependent, to keep their denial is to die. In
the process, they create pain for those around them, and they have denial about
that, too. To recover, they need to see their denial and see how it works so
that they can loosen the grip of their addictions. Denial is replaced by the
truth and acceptance. To be in denial feels like anger, fear, shame, and
isolation. Instead of being cold and cut off from themselves and others, they
can be warm and begin to grow again.
Defenses are the specific way we
ward off attacks on our denial. Some defenses are conscious and we are aware of
them. Others are subconscious. We use both to keep our denial intact. Listed
below are common defenses, or forms of denial. We use all forms of denial,
although there are some that become our favorites.
- SIMPLE DENIAL: Simply denying being chemically
dependent. Example: "You're an alcoholic." "No, I'm not."
- MINIMIZING: Minimizing is admitting the alcohol-related
problem to some degree but in such a way that it appears to be much less
serious or significant than it actually is. "I wasn't that bad at the
party," "Yes, I drink, but not that much," "I had a couple but I was OK to
drive," "I only drink beer, not the hard stuff so it's not that bad" are
frequently heard examples of minimizing.
- RATIONALIZING: Rationalizing is making excuses or
giving reasons to justify your behavior about your drinking or using.
Examples: "I can't sleep, so I drink or use pills." "I had a hard day and
was upset," "I usually don't drive after 1 drink but a friend needed a ride
home - that's the last time I'm the nice guy!" are some of the examples of
rationalizing. The behavior is not denied but an inaccurate explanation of
its cause is given.
- INTELLECTUALIZING or GENERALIZING: Intellectualizing is
avoiding emotional, personal awareness of an alcohol-related problem by
using theories about your chemical dependency, keeping it general and vague.
"Are those breath machines really reliable? Just the other day I was reading
about problems with them." "Lots of people have wine with meals, are they
alcoholics?" "My family is alcoholic and I have the wrong genes." "My
childhood was so bad, it's a way of coping with my underlying feelings."
These all are examples of intellectualizing.
- BLAMING: Blaming (also called projecting) is
maintaining that the responsibility for the behavior lies somewhere else,
not with us. "You would drink too, if you were married to her!", "The cop
was out to get me," or "I lost my job, that's what made me drink" are
examples of blaming. The behavior is not denied, but its cause is placed
'out there', not within the person doing it.
- DIVERSION: Diversion is changing the subject to avoid a
subject that is felt to be threatening. A common example of diversion is
responding with a joke, such as "You wouldn't expect me to walk in that
condition, would you?" Other examples of diversion: "Yeah, I got drunk last
night, so what's for dinner?" "My drinking bothers you? Your weight bothers
- BARGAINING: Bargaining is cutting deals or setting
conditions for when things will be right to deal with the problem. Examples:
"I'll quit drinking if you quit smoking." "I'll quit when there is less
stress at work."
- PASSIVITY: Passivity is ignoring the situation, or
being it's victim. "I've tried to quit before, but it's stronger than me."
"There's nothing I can do." "If only I had more will power..." are examples
- HOSTILITY: Hostility occurs when the person becomes
angry or unpleasantly irritable when the subject of his drinking or using is
mentioned, scaring or threatening people away from discussing it. A classic
example is the situation where the drinker asserts that his wife does not
mention that he drinks too much. In fact she used to mention it, but hasn't
for years because every time she mentioned it in the past he got angry and
they had a fight - so, she doesn't mention it any more. Examples of
hostility: "l'm lousy in bed when I'm drunk? Fine, no more sex." "Get off my
back!" "You like my paychecks, don't you?"
Denial is automatic; it is not usually a matter of deliberate lying or
willful deception. Most dependent people do not know what is true or false
concerning their drinking or drug use and its consequences. They are blinded to
the fact that their view of the situation does not conform to reality. The
denial system distorts their perception and impairs their judgment so they
become self-deluded and incapable of accurate self-awareness.
Denial is progressive. The denial system becomes increasingly more pervasive
and entrenched as the illness of chemical dependency progresses. In the very
early stages it is minimal, and with encouragement, such people can usually view
their problem fairly realistically. However, by the time a person's illness is
sufficiently advanced that the problem appears serious in the eyes of others, an
elaborate system of defenses shields him/her from seeing what is really