When we get into recovery, regardless of the path we take, it won’t be long until someone tells that us we are in denial about something. In fact, the chances are good that we heard that a number of times before we even thought about recovery. But what is denial?
Actually, denial is an important part of coping with day to day living. If we accepted as fact everything unpleasant that someone said about us, we wouldn’t be able to function very well, if at all. If we weren’t able to put aside the tragic reality of a death in the family and tend to business, we’d never be able to get through it. Denial helps us overlook the rough spots in life so that the immediate impact is lessened, and we can deal with the issues gradually. However, it becomes a problem when we use it to help us ignore important issues.
Denial is of interest to addicts (and therapists) when it gets in the way of our recognition of behavioral problems. We alcoholics and other addicts use denial to smooth the path of our addictions, help us ignore the cold, hard facts, and continue doing what our instincts tell us we have to do. It becomes automatic. In order to recover we need to be able to recognize denial, become able to see the effect it is having on our recovery, and adjust our thinking. As the old 12-step saying goes,
Lying to others is rude, but lying to ourselves is often fatal.
There are many forms of denial, and all sorts of names to describe them. We’ve listed some of the common ones, with examples of how we use them to protect our addictive behavior. There are dozens of other examples and names, but denial generally falls into the following categories.
Normalizing: “Everyone has a few drinks on a weekend” (their birthday, to celebrate, during the game, etc.) “A couple of beers never hurt anyone.” (See minimizing)
Minimizing: “I only had a couple! (Of 6-packs). “I only drink socially.” (Five nights a week) “I might have had a couple more than I should have.” (I couldn’t stand up.)
Rationalizing: “I don’t have a problem, I’ve quit for months at a time. I just don’t feel like stopping right now.” “I have to socialize with people, it’s part of my job!” “It’s a prescription drug; my doctor knows what he’s doing.” “I deserve it!”
Comparing: “Joe’s been married three times, in jail twice, lost his license and has to go to those meetings. That’s what happens when you drink too much. I’m doing fine.”
Uniqueness: “You don’t understand.” “If I go to treatment now, the business will fall apart and fifty people will lose their jobs.” “My family has an exceptional capacity for alcohol. I never get drunk.”
Deflecting is making jokes, changing the subject, angry outbursts that intimidate the opponent, threats, “important” phone calls, blowups when confronted and similar ways to take the focus off the issue.
Omitting: Leaving out information, or telling just enough of the story to satisfy the other person while leaving out the part that will get you in more trouble. “The doc said my health is great!” (Except if I don’t stop drinking I’ll be dead in five years.) Simply ignoring the other person’s remarks falls under this category as well.
Blaming: “If you had to put up with (my wife, boss, kids).” “I was doing just fine until I found George doing lines in the bathroom.” “The doctor keeps giving me prescriptions!”
Intellectualizing: This is coming up with all sorts of explanations that “obviously” anyone who thinks about the matter has to agree with, in an attempt to make questioners feel off base and uninformed. “The latest studies show that a couple of drinks a day are good for you.” It’s also a good way to fool ourselves.
Poor Me: “I’ve tried and I just can’t quit. I can’t do it no matter how hard I try.” “I give up, I’m just going to die drunk.” “My life’s in the toilet, I might as well….”
Manipulating is using power, lies, money, sex, or guilt to defuse the issue. “Remember who you’re talking to here!” “Don’t talk that way to your mother!” “Would I ever say something like that to you?” “Mommy doesn’t need to know about this. Here’s some money. Go shopping”
Compartmentalizing is doing things that you keep separate from other parts of your life. If you find yourself thinking something like “If he only knew,” or “If anyone ever found out,” then you’re compartmentalizing.
If we’re honest with ourselves, it probably won’t take us long to recognize some of our old — and perhaps not so old — tricks. And maybe, just maybe, we ought to pay attention to the next person who accuses us of denial.