The Uncomfortable Truth About Denial and Alcoholism

Many people find themselves living with an alcoholic in denial, and it is one of the most common symptoms of addiction or dependence on alcohol. Physical symptoms like tolerance, loss of appetite, and deteriorating health are clear and hard to deny.

The mental signs of alcoholism can be baffling to family members and friends who wonder if the person is just being stubborn or deliberately ignoring the problems they are causing and experiencing.

Denial is observed as a normal part of any addiction. Whether a person’s drug of choice is alcohol, cocaine, or something else entirely, denial is a defence mechanism that allows the individual to continue their destructive behaviour despite the harm it is causing.

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It is a Psychological Process

The link between denial and alcoholism suggests that the condition itself (alcoholism) needs to be treated on both physical and mental planes. Denial is a psychological process that is often rooted in a person’s subconscious. In other words, an alcoholic can be in denial and not even know it.

Subconscious denial can be frustrating to family members and friends who can clearly see what is going on but cannot convince the alcoholic that they need help. Here’s the interesting thing: denial is the result of an illusion created in the mind of the alcoholic, an illusion that what the alcoholic experiences on a daily basis is actually normal. The illusion convinces the alcoholic that their reality is everyone else’s reality too.

In essence, the alcoholic experiences impaired insight into their condition. The alcoholic cannot see what is going on in the mind or body, so it is normal to refuse to admit a drinking problem everyone else can see pretty clearly.

What Denial Looks Like

Denial and alcoholism are not a good combination. Continuing to deny the reality of a drinking problem only puts an alcoholic at greater risk of permanent physical and mental health issues. Yet by its nature, denial prevents the alcoholic from seeking appropriate help. Here is what denial looks like:

  • Secrecy – A habit of denial forces the alcoholic to conceal their drinking. Secrecy becomes the hallmark of the alcoholic’s lifestyle. Everything is done in the shadows. No one is allowed to see the truth.


  • Defensiveness – Denial naturally leads to defensiveness. The alcoholic defends himself or herself by claiming there is no drinking problem to worry about.


  • The Blame Game – In order to keep up the façade of denial, the alcoholic needs to play the blame game. Drinking is blamed on stress, a lousy job, a bad marriage, etc. The alcoholic is never responsible for the decision to drink.


  • Unwillingness to Talk – A combination of denial and alcoholism often leads to an unwillingness to talk. Alcoholics will not talk about their drinking because they don’t want to admit they might drink too much.


  • Comparisons – Alcoholics in denial often compare themselves to others. They tend to compare themselves to people who drink more than they do, thereby justifying themselves in their own eyes.


  • Broken Promises – Denial also tends to lead to broken promises. The alcoholic might make frequent promises to cut down but never follow through on them.

As frustrating as denial can be, it is not something that can be overcome by flipping a switch or taking a drug. Denial is a psychological defence mechanism that develops over time. Likewise, it can take time and effort to overcome.

How to Help an Alcoholic in Denial

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Don’t Enable Alcoholism

Dealing with a loved one experiencing denial and alcoholism together is never easy. But the one thing family members and friends must never do is enable denial. They should never reinforce an alcoholic’s attempts to deny, justify, and rationalise.

How do family members and friends tend to enable? There are multiple ways, including covering for the alcoholic in order to protect them. A good example is regularly calling the alcoholic’s employer to say they can’t come to work because of illness.

Don’t Play the Blame Game

Denial is a natural way the brain protects itself from uncomfortable thoughts, feelings and experiences. It is a natural coping mechanism to stop our minds from stress and pain. People in denial are usually feeling very vulnerable and afraid of the pain that comes with accepting their alcoholism. Blaming them for problems and threatening them will only make them feel worse and either break them mentally or put their denial into overdrive. This can be hard when you feel hurt and angry about what they have done but take a deep breath and remember that this ain’t who they are, just how they are handling a situation.

Do Show You Care

Fear of being abandoned and worry that they are essentially bad can be a major cause of denial in alcoholics. One of the reasons many people with alcoholism deny damaging their loved ones is they fear the pain of accepting that. Showing that you care, love and forgive them despite their actions can help them to accept help and come to terms with their alcoholism.

Natural Consequences of Alcoholism

Another way to address denial in alcoholism is to allow the alcoholic to suffer the negative consequences of their behaviour. Negative consequences have a way of driving home reality more effectively than just talking about things.

The Alcoholic Needs Help

The one thing we know about denial and alcoholism is that they lead to big problems if they are not addressed. Denial is a sign of a serious drinking problem. It is a problem for which the alcoholic needs help. As for how to arrange that help, there is no black-and-white formula. But there are medical and charitable organisations, family members and friends can turn to for assistance.