What is denial?
Denial is refusing to admit or acknowledge something that may seem obvious to others. When it comes to substance use disorders, denial occurs when you refuse to accept to acknowledge the problems created as a result of your addiction. You might deny your dependence on a substance, your lack of control over your use, your ability to stop using, and the physical, emotional, and social consequences of your use. Denial takes a number of forms—minimizing, rationalizing, justifying, and blaming are just a few.
Why did we, as substance abusers, deny the facts? We might use denial to sidestep shameful, uncomfortable, or painful events. We might also use denial to minimize our deep feelings of guilt, shame, anxiety, fear, and inadequacy.
Denial is something that happens within us, but also within families and the community at large. Family members often have a stake in denying that someone within the family circle has an out-of-control problem and isn’t behaving like people in other families. A few decades ago, society at large denied that women could abuse alcohol or other drugs. Thus, many women couldn’t get treatment, and by the time they did, their addictions had progressed so far that recovery was far more difficult.
Thoughts of Denial
- When you were using, you may have experienced these thoughts of denial: “Prescription medications won’t cause addiction.”
- “I will stop after having just one.”
- “If I was addicted, I wouldn’t have my high-powered job.”
- “I can quit when I want to—I just don’t feel like it right now.”
- “My family exaggerates when they describe my faults.”
How can denial affect your recovery?
Denial works in many insidious ways to prevent or postpone healthy recovery. Some people are so good at denial that they never get into treatment—an avoidance that can eventually be fatal. Others minimize all aspects of substance use so that, by the time they enter treatment, their physical, mental, and spiritual lives are bankrupt. These people will require longer treatment and sometimes repeat treatment to recover.
Once in treatment, denial can lengthen stays and inhibit people from experiencing all the benefits of the program. Denial at any point along the way can lead to a relapse. Denial, even a little denial, undermines the intent of each of the Steps. Denying addiction affects Step One. Denying your inability to stop on your own undermines Steps Two and Three. Minimizing or rationalizing the effect your addictive behavior has had at home, with friends, or on the job renders your Fourth and Fifth Steps less than honest. It also dilutes the honesty behind your list of shortcomings in Steps Five and Six. And, denial weakens the foundation of any amends you make in Steps Seven and Eight.
The best antidote for denial is, of course, rigorous honesty. What are your particular patterns of denial? How can you cut through them and sharpen your focus on the truth about your addiction? Each of the Steps offers an opportunity to keep denial front and center in your recovery.
For example, when taking a daily inventory, ask yourself how you may have minimized the impact of your behavior on others. Repeat Steps Four and Five as often as needed to shine light into areas of your life you haven’t yet addressed with full honesty. Are there amends you can and should make to continue confronting your past actions?