Denial And Addiction

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Denial & Addiction

The term denial is often used and associated with alcohol, substance and behavioural addictions.

The reason it is used when referring to individual’s addiction is that addicts use it consciously and unconsciously in order to protect themselves from the reality of their addiction and its consequences.

Sigmund Freud first touted the concept of denial in a recognised psychological way and explained it as an “a defence mechanism by which a person’s own mind would subconsciously hide the facts of reality from them as a way to perhaps protect their ego, or avoid necessary but painful realizations and/or life changes”.

Denial is a way of lying to one’s self in order to protect us from reality. Addicts often use it as a means to continue drinking or using to shield themselves from the outcomes of their substance abuse. All too often alcoholics and drug users blame everyone else for their addiction or deny the very existence of it, as it is extremely hard to come to terms with the fact they are addicts.

Sigmund Freud said that denial is actively used when “a person is faced with a fact that is too uncomfortable to accept and rejects it instead, insisting that it is not true despite what may be overwhelming evidence.”

In a way, it’s as if a person in denial is lying to themselves, but according to the concept, when we are in denial we’re pathologically rejecting reality.  That is to say, a person who is in denial isn’t consciously lying because they don’t even know the truth as their own mind has hidden it from them.

The ability to deny allows addicts to continue their behaviour and somehow justify it in their own brain that they are ‘okay’ and can control their addict, despite massive and overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Breaking denial is one of the hardest mental obstacles to do, hence why addiction is such a difficult thing to overcome.

Often, denial in addicts can often be broken down during intervention where friends and family’s persuasive words and actions can cause full realisation in the addict and reduce or eliminate denial all together.

The twelve-step programme used firstly by Alcoholics Anonymous  – and now adopted by other recovery groups associated with addictive and compulsive behaviour – uses a system where addicts need to address their denial and the program is designed in order to do this.

Indeed, the very first step in the programme which is: 

“We admitted we were powerless over our addiction – that our lives had become unmanageable” focuses on the addict eliminating denial and accepting their addiction.

Acceptance and therefore the lifting of denial that the person has an addiction is necessary in order for treatment of the addictive behaviour and recovery.

Denial gets stronger the longer the addiction and the greater the likelihood that residential rehab is needed for the individual to come to terms with their addiction and then start the process of recovery.

Often, many people are still in denial even when they enter rehab because they have done so in order to allay family or friends fears. Any good rehab will recognise this, treat accordingly and the client will accept their addiction during their time in rehab.

About the author

Peter Szczepanski

Pete has been on the GPhC register for 29 years. He holds a Clinical Diploma in Advanced Clinical Practice and he is a Clinical Lead in Alcohol and Substance Misuse for Abbeycare Gloucester and works as the Clinical Lead in Alcohol and Substance Use in Worcestershire. To read more about Pete visit his LinkedIn profile.