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Dealing with Denial in Alcoholism

February 21, 2018

Alcoholism and Denial

What many people don’t understand about alcoholism is that denial is one of the biggest barriers to sobriety. Once a person is thoroughly aware that they have a chronic problem, the path to recovery is much easier. This is not to say that recovery is a simple matter. It is just that the alcoholic can’t really get anywhere until they are permanently convinced that they have a real issue.

To understand how to deal with denial, we must first understand its nature. Dealing with denial is only possible given this understanding.

For those struggling with alcoholism, denial is a  common problem that can lead one to continue drinking. Although denial can be a puzzling issue, it can often be broken down into two major types. Let us call these two types of denial Type A and Type B.

Type A exists on a conscious level. The person knows that they have a real problem, but they consciously deny it to themselves and others. When confronted with the issue, they simply refuse to accept the truth. This type of denial is a form of dishonesty.

Type B denial is something very different. It occurs when the person is either partially or completely blind to their problem. They use self-deception and rationalization to delude themselves into believing that they don’t really have an issue with drinking. In most cases, they are the only ones who are fooled into this belief.

Type B is the most serious type of denial because it leads those dealing with addiction to resist the help of others. Instead of seeking help, the person can become angry and indignant at what they consider to be misguided accusations from those around them.

It’s important to understand that even after the person admits to having a problem, denial may emerge again in a new form. This happens because many people struggling with addiction have dealt with denial for so long that it has become part of their existence. This can be especially true for those dubbed  “high-functioning alcoholics” who are able to carry on with daily responsibilities in spite of their drinking problem.

Denial Behavior

To understand how a person denies their problem, we must outline the behaviors of those dealing with denial. Doing so makes it easier to recognize the problem.

Avoidance

Avoidance happens when an alcoholic knows there is a problem but steers clear of admitting it. They might say that their business is personal or just change the subject every time their dependency is brought up in conversation.

Minimizing

Many alcoholics minimize the severity of the problem and make it seem like it’s not a big deal. This is a common component of addiction.

Blaming

Acknowledging that there is a problem but claiming that it is not one’s fault is part of the blaming process. By assigning blame to someone else, the addict feels that they aren’t responsible for quitting.

Comparing

Comparing one’s addiction issues to those of other people gives the alcoholic a chance to say that their drinking is not a problem. It also provides an excuse to keep drinking.

Manipulating

The addict may allow a loved one to help them. When they fail, they may blame the person for the failure and make them feel guilty for not keeping them from drinking.

Compliance

The addict consents to be helped, but it’s only for show. When they fail at their attempt, they will make excuses for it.

Absolute Denial

This is where the addict simply outright refuses to admit that they have an addiction. Absolute denial is a huge obstacle on the way to sobriety.

Internal Components of Denial

It is also crucial to realize that the problem is both intellectual and spiritual. It is possible that a person will come to intellectually accept that they have a problem yet not believe it in their innermost self. Such a person is prone to constant relapse.

The intellectual component is typically based on a problem with definition or semantics. For instance, the person may only consider an alcoholic to be someone who fits a certain image. They are a degenerate who lives on the street. An individual who works and pays the bills couldn’t possibly be an alcoholic.

The spiritual component is even more difficult to deal with than the intellectual one. A person may accept that they have a problem intellectually yet not embrace it in their heart. The kind of scenario can develop where a person is ready to make a simple admission but has not wiped out the whole system of rationalization and making excuses.

Stages of Denial

In addition to there being several behaviors associated with addiction denial, some addiction experts have recognized that the process occurs in three stages. Each stage has intellectual and spiritual features.

Stage One

Stage one is when a person does not believe that they have a real disease. They might accept that they have an addiction to a particular drug yet not have an illness, or they use the drug but don’t believe they are chemically dependent.

The bottom line is that a person in this condition does not accept that they have an illness that needs to be addressed. The only real solution to the problem in their life is total abstinence from all mind-altering substances.

Overcoming Stage One

Overcoming the incorrect understanding of chemical dependency is achieved through proper education. However, this will only create what is known as “compliance.” Compliance is intellectual acceptance.

The spiritual acceptance of the problem is a much deeper issue. It comes about when there is a basic conversion in the belief system. Internal acceptance is a process rather than an event, and it does not occur magically overnight.

The first step toward overcoming this stage is a verbal admission that one has a problem. Once that seed is planted, it is nourished by reinforcement. As the person begins to admit and accept the fact that they have an issue, it becomes more likely that they will begin to believe it in their innermost self.

To achieve this acceptance, it is not enough that the person repeats the words like a mantra. They must do an analysis of all of the rationalizations and excuses that they make for their problem. Remember, there is often an established internal system of addiction denial that they must overcome.

Stage Two

Stage two occurs when a person denies that they must have ongoing sobriety support after completing an initial treatment period. The person must come to admit that they are powerless against their problem. It is crucial to understand that sobriety is not achieved by only good intentions. Once a person no longer has the pressure of their peer group in treatment, the risk of relapse increases.

During stage two, the person has to achieve a type of spiritual awakening that could also be referred to as a moment of clarity. The person must reach this innermost state before achieving any long-term sobriety.

Overcoming Stage Two

Overcoming stage two requires that a person accept that they need help from outside powers in order to maintain their sobriety. Those who remain entirely dependent on themselves to stay sober are still in the second stage.

Regardless of how long one has abstained from drinking, it’s important to seek outside support. Remember, relapse can occur even after many years of sobriety.

Stage Three

During stage three, one believes that they don’t need to put much effort into the recovery process. This type of denial indicates that the person likely has other priorities that are more important than staying away from alcohol.

Overcoming Stage Three

Overcoming the third stage of denial requires active participation in recovery support. Getting involved in meetings and other support systems is very helpful at this stage.

While working to get past denying one’s alcoholism, it’s important to strive for progress and not perfection. A person needs to figure out exactly how much involvement they need based on their own particular situation.

How to Talk to Someone Who Is Denying Their Problem

If you are the loved one of an alcoholic, you are probably looking for ways to have a talk with them about their problem. Here are some tips to help you prepare:

1. Choose the best possible time and place to talk.

You need to ensure that both of you are sober and calm. Designate a private place where you can talk. If there has been something negative that has happened, you will want to take that opportunity to address it. They will be more open to recognizing their problem if they can see its negative consequences clearly.

2. Involve other people.

You should consider involving others in the conversation. These other people may be family members, friends, or professionals. Involving others allows you to gain outside perspectives. It also makes the conversation less of a personal confrontation.

Including a doctor can shed some light on the situation from a knowledgeable professional. It’s the same with a therapist. Including a clergy member can also be a good idea because they have experience as a confidante.

You might want to think about including an interventionist. They are experienced in handling these types of situations, so they know how to aid family and friends in approaching the conversation in a productive and non-threatening way.

3. Expect avoidance and anger from your loved one.

You need to remember that there is a neurological basis for the problem. When confronted with the issue and the ways it is affecting others, many alcoholics will respond with anger or complete avoidance of this issue.

4. Control your emotions.

You need to remain calm and compassionate no matter how your loved one responds to what you say. Of course, it will be extremely counterproductive if you get into an argument with your loved one. Should the situation arise that you do get into an argument or fight, take a break and then try again. You may need to wait a few days before doing so.

5. Plan out potential responses ahead of the conversation.

Consider consulting with your doctor or therapist to plan out what it is that you need to say to your loved one. You may even want to write down what it is that you want to address. Remember to keep everything productive and positive. Intervention letters are good tools to help you get across what you need to say without bringing up hurtful things that are counterproductive.

6. Use “I” statements instead of “you” statements.

This will help you avoid pointing the finger at your loved one. You need to focus on the things that you have noticed and are worried about.

7. Practice active listening.

Active listening helps you connect with your loved one on a deeper level. If your loved one starts to make rationalizations, simply repeat their statement back in the form of a question. This will help demonstrate that you understand what they are saying and are only concerned with their well-being.

What Not to Say or Do

  1. Don’t try to force your loved one to seek treatment. Remember that this is a process, and they may not agree at first to seek help.
  2. Avoid using words like “should” or “shouldn’t.” You don’t want to make it seem like you are telling them what to do.
  3. Try not to attack your loved one. Don’t begin your questions with the word “why.”
  4. Try not to be judgmental. You don’t want to make them feel ashamed or guilty. This may shut down the conversation.

Dealing with denial with respect to alcoholism can be difficult. It is a complex process that requires a lot of energy and planning. Fortunately, at Sunshine Shores Recovery we are available to help you through the process. Call us today to speak to one of our caring and compassionate addiction treatment specialists.

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