If we understand how denial works, can we stop doing it? Can we stop those we love doing it?
Since getting sober I have become fascinated by the concept of denial, the experience of being in it, and the process of coming out of it.
For twenty years or more I was happy with my habit of heavy drinking. I would have unselfconsciously listed ‘drinking beer’ as a hobby until very recently before I quit. Drinking simply wasn’t a problem.
Was I in denial? Or did my drinking only become an issue in its latest stages?
Hanna Packard’s brilliant piece entitled ‘Denial and Addiction’ in Mind and Language, Volume 31, Issue 3 gave me a better insight into this mysterious self-protective defense system.
Here’s what I learned. And it doesn’t only apply to giving up booze.
What is denial anyway?
What do we even mean when we talk about denial? How is it possible for a person to lie to themselves? And if it is so possible, how can we tell whether or not we are doing it?
“Denial is commonly understood as a refusal to acknowledge the reality of one’s situation, when doing so would cause such psychological pain and distress. It therefore protects a person against this negative experience by ‘denying’ the reality that would otherwise cause it.”
Denial is a psychological system that protects a person from painful truths. This is commonly experienced and witnessed in addiction when an individual insists their drinking/shopping/sex habit is not problematic.
“Denial is an umbrella term, admitting of different kinds, means, degrees, and objects, and we should expect this diversity to be evident with respect to denial among addicts.”
So what are the identifying features of denial?
1. Personal exceptionalism
Humans, generally, believe we are the exception to the rule, whatever the rule might be. This is why most of us worry more about our partners getting cancer and dying than ourselves getting cancer and dying.
It is part of our incredible ability to survive in the constant uncertainty and generally dangerous conditions we find on planet earth.
So how does this translate into denial? A chronic addict might believe that they will be the lucky one to swerve the liver cirrhosis diagnosis, in spite of their daily drinking.
But how about a person in the much earlier stages of an addiction. Me, for instance.
I knew that it was universally considered a sign of alcoholism to drink alone, but when I started to do so often and take great pleasure in it, I simply dismissed the rule as not applying to me.
When my dad called me sad for staying home alone to drink wine on a Friday night, instead of going to the pub to get cha-bongered with him, I felt like he just didn’t understand the introvert’s enjoyment of drinking alone.
2. Justification and Minimisation
It wasn’t that expensive.
I really deserve a treat!
Everybody does it.
Justification and minimisation are conscious functions of denial, and a person might have some awareness of their tendency towards these. Do you often hear yourself defend your right to partake in a certain behaviour?
I had an ex who used to drive me insane with his habit of blaming his out of control drunkenness on his heavy drinking friends. How babyish! I thought. Why can’t he just take responsibility for himself?
Imagine my surprise when I realised, after hundreds of fights, that I was doing the exact same thing every time I blamed him for my own lack of control around drinking.
“There is evidence that we are more likely to adopt a sceptical mindset and question the validity and quality of preference‐inconsistent than preference‐consistent evidence.”
In other words, we find it easier to believe what we want to believe.
Evidence that would ordinarily be sufficient to trigger new understanding about the dangers of a specific behaviour might be received sceptically, challenged or outright dismissed if it threatens the problematic habit of a person in denial.
This might take the form of trying to find loopholes in evidence, withholding judgment, in spite of their already being plenty of evidence, or discrediting the information and/or motivation of the source that threatens the behaviour we are protecting.
Alcoholics Anonymous talk about the ‘ism’ of alcoholism standing for Incredibly Short Memory. This, they say, is what allows a drinker to swear off booze and then drink too much in the same 12 hour period.
I had the impression that my drinking had been mostly fun until the couple of years leading up to my first attempt at Dry January in 2015.
Browsing my old diaries reveals a different story.
DON’T DRINK and PLEASE DON’T DRINK, CHELSEY are scrawled at the top of dozens of pages of my notebooks, like lo-fi attempts at a logo.
Reading random pages I discovered (and remembered) that from very early on in my drinking career, I was repeatedly swearing off alcohol on one page and recovering from a hangover on the next.
Forgetfulness is one of the unconscious functions of denial. Which raises the question, how can you choose not to engage in the behaviour when you can’t remember its problematic for you?
This is one of the things a supportive community can help with. Repeated identifying as ‘alcoholic’ at AA, for instance, can fend off the so-called ‘ism’ that tempts an individual sworn off booze to drink.
“Rather than explicitly dispute the proposition in question, one simply does everything possible to avoid it.”
This is another of those tricky unconscious manifestations of denial. Could it explain how I managed to get to 30 years old with a total lack of knowledge about the harms of drinking alcohol?
Somehow, I had no understanding of the most basic facts relating to addiction: that alcoholism was progressive; that it ran in families, that drinking excessive alcohol, and starting early in life, increased your chances of developing it.
Denial can show up as huge blind spots in your knowledge. People who are intelligent and measured in other areas of their life are completely chaotic around this one specific area. Maybe food, relationships or gambling.
We seek out knowledge and information that serves us. If you find yourself not wanting to know the facts about something, you might be witnessing your own denial guiding and protecting* you.
So how can we tell if someone we love is in denial?
This is the easiest thing in the world with chronic addiction, but what about the earlier stages? In drinking this might be the ‘almost-alcoholic’? In relationships this might show up as repeated cheating. Is addiction taking hold?
As Packard outlines:
“Given… that there is no sharp line between heavy use and addiction, the negative consequences of drug use are crucial to establishing that there is indeed a problem — that the costs of use have come to outweigh the benefits.”
So what if you suspect that the negative consequences your loved one is experiencing are related to their problematic habit but are not certain?
Might a better understanding of the different varieties of denial help you to gain a better understanding of what is going on, in order to help them?
As someone who quit drinking before anyone else seemed to notice it was a problem, because of the damage already done to my wellbeing, self-esteem, mental health, sense of purpose and relationships, I’m hopeful that it might.
Had anyone close to me known about the ways in which denial manifested, they might have been able to ask certain questions to get a clearer understanding of where my alcohol use featured in the picture of my unhappiness.
They would easily have been able to recognise forgetfulness, avoidance, minimisation, justification, scepticism and personal exceptionalism in the way I talked about and behaved regarding alcohol.
So can we tell if WE are in denial?
This is even trickier. Since you will be living inside your own system of denial, it is very unlikely that, for instance, you would have chosen to read an article such as this.
I’m likely preaching to the converted, those like me, who are recently sober or awakened from some longstanding inertia, and searching for a better understanding of why they allowed their lives to feel for so long like Groundhog Day (and not the fun part) and how they can insure against going back there or how they can help someone else wake up.
Still, here goes nothing:
If you don’t believe the government guidelines for alcohol consumption apply to you (personal exceptionalism) and have detailed reasons why not (rationalisation), and if, minutes or hours after complaining of a hangover and swearing off alcohol for the week (forgetful), you are drinking again, then you might be in denial.
So what can we do to help ourselves?
Listen to those closest to you.
It is easier for humans to recognise problematic habits in others than themselves.
Packard discusses this phenomenon as a way of understanding how denial works by referring to Alfred R.Mele’s analysis of self‐deception in Self-Deception Unmasked.
“Adapted to denial, Mele’s basic idea is that, if we make the evidence in favour of the proposition denied available to a group of the denier’s impartial cognitive peers, then those who would come to believe the proposition would significantly outnumber those who would come to disbelieve it.”
In other words, if we were to describe the build-up of negative consequences resulting from a person’s habit to an uninvolved party without a vested interest in a particular outcome, they would be more likely to also correlate the negative consequences with the habit.
Could a better understanding of denial improve addiction treatment?
Here’s Hanna again, explaining why the addict so struggles to connect the ways in which their life is falling apart with their habit:
“They are in denial about the negative consequences of use precisely because they want to persist to such a degree that it is psychologically painful and distressing even to contemplate desistence — let alone actually doing so.”
It isn’t only the negative consequences of their addiction they’re hiding from, but the addiction itself; if they recognise the severity of the consequences, if they admit the seriousness of the actions they are taking, then they will have to change their behaviour.
They will no longer be able to hide behind being a lovely, innocent ‘heavy drinker’ but will have crossed the invisible boundary into ‘alcoholism’.
If we can identify the sort of denial our friend is experiencing, we might be able to help them see through or around it, or perhaps, at least, provide the first hole in their forcefield of denial.
On a broader playing field, paying closer attention to denial’s role in addiction could lead to clinicians and support workers being better able to tailor treatment to suit suffering individuals.
*Contested. Certainly our denial is protecting us, but sometimes we’d be better off facing the painful truth.