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Denial is More Than Stubbornness

Addictive behavior is baffling from the outside. Friends or family of addicted people may look on in wonder as their loved one burns her life down. From the outside, it is obvious that most of the bad things in her life would stop happening if she would only get treatment and stay sober. Her unwillingness to acknowledge her addiction and get help may appear stubborn and irrational, but it’s unlikely she is merely being stubborn. Denial is a common problem in addiction and it goes much deeper than most people realize.

Everyone experiences denial in some respect. Usually, this denial is not nearly as destructive as it is in addiction and it may even be useful, as when people experience denial in the early stages of grief. It’s not permanent and it gives the grieving person time to adjust to a major change.

Denial of addiction, though, is destructive and it can allow someone to go on until something happens that’s too bad to rationalize. This is obvious to non-addicts, but non-addicts are usually blind to the fact that denial serves a purpose for the addict. Denial is primarily a subconscious defense mechanism. First, no one likes to think of herself as an addict. She probably has a mental image of an addict that does not match her self-image. If she were to admit that she were an addict, it would be painful to her ego. This isn’t mere vanity; it has to do with how she relates to the world and disrupting your sense of who you are can lead to confusion and turmoil.

Also, the prospect of treatment and sobriety can be threatening. Detox is often painful, therapy is often emotionally difficult, and even if you succeed in all that, the prospect of living inside your own head with no possibility of relief for the rest of your life might be too painful to face. Denial protects you from all of this potential pain, and in fact protects you from the difficulty of deciding whether to face the pain.

Denial may be even deeper than that. One small study suggests that denial is highly correlated with cognitive impairment of the kind often caused by prolonged heavy drinking. The study found that many people denied having a problem simply because they weren’t capable of recognizing their own patterns. In particular, people strongly in denial did poorly on a test in which they had to infer the rules for sorting cards. Some of them were unable to sort the cards correctly even when they were explicitly told how to do it. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that they were unable to acknowledge their own patterns of behavior.

Denial is one of the biggest challenges to getting someone into recovery, but it can usually be overcome. An addiction counselor or intervention specialist may be able to help your loved one acknowledge her problem.

If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction, Gardens Wellness Center can help you detox safely and decide on a treatment strategy. Call us today at 844-325-9168 or email us at to learn more.