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.

  1. SIMPLE DENIAL: Simply denying being chemically dependent. Example: "You're an alcoholic." "No, I'm not."
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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 me!"
  7. 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."
  8. 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 of passivity.
  9. 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 happening.