Watching a loved one struggle with addiction can be frustrating, heartbreaking and scary. But dealing with an addicted loved one can be even more upsetting when they are in denial about their substance use. When your loved one refuses to admit that they have a problem, they prevent themselves from getting the help they need. Luckily, there’s hope. Understanding denial, the role it plays in addiction, and how to combat it in a healthy way can help your loved one see the truth about their addiction and get the treatment they need.
Denial: Rejecting Reality
Even though denial often looks and feels like a lie, rejecting reality is actually a coping mechanism and natural response to pain. When individuals are stuck in a pattern of denial, their thoughts, feelings, and actions are usually rooted in fear. They want to avoid shame, guilt, criticism, and self-judgement. Because of this, they choose to deny reality. This denial can look like minimizing others’ concern, rationalizing their actions, and even deceiving themselves.
If your loved one is stuck in a pattern of minimizing their behavior, they may act like your concerns about their well-being are blowing things out of proportion. When you question them about their drug and alcohol use, for example, they may respond by saying something like, “Other people drink/use drugs more than I do,” or “It’s really not that bad.” As much as you want to prove them wrong, don’t argue back and forth with them. You can address this pattern with a counselor or professional interventionist at another, more productive time.
Your loved one might also deny their substance use by rationalizing their actions or making excuses about their addictive behavior. They might tell you that they’re drinking more because they’re stressed or having a tough time. They may tell you that everything is okay because they can “quit at any time.” Other responses your loved one might use if they’re rationalizing their addiction can include:
- “I’m just doing this to have fun.”
- “I’m not hurting anyone else.”
- “If you had my problems, you would be drinking/using drugs, too.”
- “I’m not going to get addicted to drugs that are legally prescribed to me.”
- “It’s not the right time to quit right now.”
Regardless of the excuse your loved one might use to justify their substance use, rationalization is generally rooted in the belief that someone has “ the right” to drink or use drugs.
Self-deception can be hard to recognize but often manifests in the belief that whatever is happening isn’t “that bad” despite serious evidence that proves otherwise.
Rejecting reality can be extremely dangerous, especially for people grappling with addiction challenges.
What Makes Denial So Dangerous?
Since denial hinders reality, it stops people from dealing with the actual source of their pain or fear. The longer your loved one denies their addiction, the longer they’ll continue to use substances to escape from or cope with whatever is causing them distress. That’s what makes denial so dangerous: it hinders the recovery process.
When your loved one denies their drinking or drug usage, they’re refusing to address the difficulty of their situation. In order to help them, you need to understand how denial enables addiction. Every time your loved one minimizes the severity of their problem, justifies their substance abuse, and downplays the consequences of their actions, they:
- Suppress their own self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is the belief in our ability to complete tasks and overcome challenges. Denial, which is often rooted in fear, suppresses self-efficacy by making us fear challenges. When your loved one denies their addiction, they are suppressing their ability to handle whatever is bothering them. In a way, they are saying, “I can’t handle this without drugs or alcohol.” Even though this isn’t true, this belief encourages addictive behavior and prevents your loved one from getting the help they need.
- Continue to self-medicate their problem. Without a good sense of self-efficacy, your loved one will probably end up using drugs and alcohol to treat the issues that are fueling their addiction. This is called self-medication and it is a dangerous habit that can lead to and perpetuate addiction challenges. Unfortunately, self-medication can multiply the number of problems your loved one is dealing with.
- Create multiple problems. Avoiding reality allows problems to grow. When your loved one continues to turn to drugs and alcohol instead of dealing with their situation head on, their stress levels may increase which can increase their risk of physical and mental health problems. Denial and self-medication can also start to negatively affect your loved one’s relationships with others. Some of the worst consequences of denial and self-medication can include divorce, unemployment, legal trouble, financial ruin, chronic illness, and homelessness.
The good news is there are plenty of ways you can help an addicted family member stop denying the truth and get the help they need.
Practical Ways To Help An Addicted Family Member In Denial
As natural as it might be to try to prove your loved one wrong, that’s usually not the healthiest path to pursue. Keep in mind that addiction is often a symptom of a deeper issue and denial is a defensive mechanism. This means that before you attempt to help your loved one at all, you must do so with the right frame of mind. Even though you may have a right to be angry, lead with love and legitimate concern. Remember, it’s very likely that your loved one is using drugs and alcohol to cover up, deal with, or escape from deeper issues you may not know about. Know that when you approach them about their substance abuse, they will likely be defensive. They’re probably scared, embarrassed or a combination of both. That’s why they deny what’s really going on.
You may be able to help ease their defensiveness by:
- Opening up about challenges you're facing or have faced
- Telling them about how you overcame past challenges
- Encouraging them to see a counselor
- Offering to attend a peer support meeting with them
If that doesn’t help them move past denial, you can also:
- Stage an intervention
- Pursue involuntary commitment
1. Be Honest About Challenges You’re Facing Or Have Faced
Many addicts deny their actions out of fear of being judged, criticized or deemed a “bad person.” A good way to combat this is to bare your soul a little. When your loved one is sober, talk to them. But when you do, don’t mention drugs, alcohol, addiction, or anything related to substance abuse. Instead, ask them how they’re doing. Inquire about what’s going on in their life. If they’re married or have children, ask them about their family. If they’re employed or in school, ask them how that’s going. And when they talk, listen. Don’t interrupt. Don’t give unsolicited advice. Just be present, listen, and acknowledge how they’re feeling.
If they refuse to engage with you at all, tell them about challenges you’re facing or have faced. Let them know about some of the distressing moments you’ve been through or are going through. Tell them about the things that cause you stress and agony. If you’ve used addictive substances in the past, be honest about that. The more they see you opening up, the safer they may feel about opening up as well. Remember, the goal here isn’t to point fingers, it’s to get them to acknowledge reality. If you’re real, raw, and honest with them, they will be more likely to be real, raw, and honest with you. And honesty erodes denial, which can help your loved one move toward addiction treatment.
2. Tell Your Loved One How You Overcome Challenges
When you’re talking to a loved one, be sure to tell them about how you’ve overcome challenges as well. Even though most addicts won’t admit it, many of them feel overwhelmed at best and hopeless and powerless at worst. Telling them about challenges you’ve overcome can help them realize that they can successfully deal with and overcome challenges as well.
3. Encourage Your Loved One To See A Counselor
If you’ve managed to get your loved one to open up to you, encourage them to see a counselor. If your loved one seems somewhat resistant to the idea, you can offer to go see the counselor with them. That may help ease their anxiety a bit. If you’ve personally benefited from working with a therapist, tell your loved one about your experience.
Although therapy can be intimidating, a licensed counselor can help your loved one:
- Discuss difficult subjects
- Heal from traumatic events
- Improve their mental health
- Develop healthy coping strategies that’ll help combat self-medication
- Relieve and talk through unpleasant emotions
- Accept reality which can help combat denial
- Resolve internal conflicts they may be dealing with
Therapy can also help your loved one identify the underlying causes of their addiction, which can in turn, help them move past denial and work toward emotional, physical, and psychological healing.
4. Agree To Attend A Self-Help Meeting With Your Loved One
If your loved one doesn’t feel comfortable visiting a counselor, talk to them about attending a self-help meeting. These meetings can be less formal and your loved one can attend them without obligating themselves to a specific treatment program or follow-up plan. Let them know that they aren’t alone in their struggles. Emphasize the fact that many of the people in the group are dealing with the same issues they’re dealing with. Highlight the fact that these meetings are non-judgemental safe spaces. This might help them feel less alone.
Self-help meetings such as AA or NA meetings can help your loved one:
- Realize that they’re not alone
- Learn skills that can help them conquer cravings
- Get support when they’re having a difficult or emotional time
- Meet other people who can encourage them to pursue treatment and sobriety
- Know that many people have recovered and are in the process of recovering from addiction
5. Stage An Intervention
If you’ve tried everything and your loved one continues to deny their addiction, it may be time to stage an intervention. An intervention is an organized and planned attempt to approach someone about their drinking or drug use. Interventions can be intense and upsetting, but they are highly effective at helping addicted people realize the truth about their substance use.
During an intervention, you and others will gather together to talk to your loved one about the consequences of their substance use. When you meet with your loved one, provide specific examples of their behavior. You should offer a prearranged treatment plan with clear steps, goals, and guidelines. The goal is to motivate your loved one to seek treatment and professional help. If your loved one refuses to accept treatment, be sure to explain the boundaries each person in the intervention will set.
6. Pursue Involuntary Commitment
You can also pursue involuntary commitment. Through this process, you can legally enroll your loved one in an addiction treatment program against their will. Even though this process may not be ideal, involuntary commitment can help your loved one get the help they need.
Involuntary commitment is legal in Massachusetts, but the state does not consider it a good first option. Research shows that most people recover better when they are motivated and willing to participate in a treatment program.
Helping You Help The One You Love
Watching your loved one deny they have an addiction problem can be frustrating and upsetting. But there’s hope. Understanding denial, talking to your loved one, being honest about your own struggles, and encouraging your loved one to seek counseling can help them move past denial. You can also stage an intervention or look into involuntary commitment. Whatever path you decide, we want to help you help your loved one.
Contact us today if someone you love is in denial about addiction.