Denial as a Symptom of Alcoholism

As alcoholism progresses, so does the denial

Man sitting on bed having a drink

Westend61 / Getty Images

One of the most frustrating factors in dealing with alcoholism is it is almost always accompanied by a phenomenon known as denial—a refusal to admit the truth or reality of the condition. With denial, a person with alcohol use disorder has impaired insight into their condition. Denial is a common symptom of alcohol use disorder and it can keep the person from seeking treatment. Friends and family members can also become involved in denial.

Signs of Denial in Alcoholism

Honesty is often the first thing to go in the course of alcohol use disorder. The drinker simply lies about his drinking—to himself and others. These lies take several forms of denial behavior.

  • Rationalization: The alcoholic explains his excessive drinking in a way that makes it more acceptable. "I only had two." " I haven't had a drink in a week."
  • Dismissing: The alcoholic refuses to talk about his drinking or dismisses it as not a real problem. "Let's not talk about this now, okay?" "Stop nagging me about drinking."​
  • Blame: The alcoholic blames his drinking on other people, situations, or bad luck. "She makes me so mad I have to have a drink." "If my job wasn't so frustrating, I wouldn't need a drink." "It's just bad luck that the cop stopped me after I left the bar."
  • Concealing: The alcoholic begins to hide his drinking from others and deny that he is drinking when they ask him about it. "No, that's just breath freshener you smell." "Yes, I stopped at the bar, but just to say hi to the guys."
  • Making comparisons: The alcoholic may excuse his drinking to himself or others as being a normal pattern or not as excessive as another person's. "I don't drink as much as Charlie, and he's not having any problems." "At least I'm not drunk all day like my dad was."
  • False agreement: The alcoholic agrees that he has a problem and to take action, but never does. "Yeah, I need to cut back." "This is my last drink."
  • Defensiveness: The alcoholic defends his drinking as a choice. "It's my body and my life, it's nobody else's business."

Development of Denial

The alcoholic covers up and denies his drinking out of his own feelings that there is something different or "wrong" about it. Somewhere inside he realizes that his drinking means more to him that he is willing to admit. Because alcohol use disorders lead to damage to the brain and its functions, denial and illness insight can continue to worsen.

A Defense Mechanism

As the disease progresses and his drinking begins to cause real problems in his life, remarkably the denial likewise increases. Drinking sprees can create problems at work, relationship losses, or even arrest for driving impaired, but the alcoholic denies these problems have anything to do with drinking. Some say this is purely a defense mechanism.

How is this possible? Usually, by the time the disease has gotten to the crisis point, a person with alcoholism has developed a support system of family and friends who unwittingly enable him to continue in his denial. They can display secondary denial, making similar excuses for the drinking and its consequences.

Protecting the Alcoholic

Family and friends often protect their loved one by covering for him, doing the work that he doesn't get done, paying the bills that he doesn't pay, rescuing him from his scrapes with the law, and generally taking up the responsibilities he has abandoned.

  • He can't come to work today, he's got a virus.
  • We've got to get him out of jail; he'll lose his job—then what will we do?
  • It was my fault, officer; I said some things I should not have said.

Rescued From the Consequences

By doing these things, family and friends are protecting the alcoholic from the consequences of his actions. The alcoholic never experiences the pain caused by his drinking. It's as if they are putting pillows under him and he is never hurt by his fall.

Although drinking has placed him in a helpless and dependent position, the alcoholic can continue to believe he is still independent because he has been rescued from his troubles by his well-meaning family, friends, co-workers, employers, and sometimes clergymen and counselors.

Secondary Denial Keeps the Alcoholic From Hitting Bottom

The roles these enablers play to "help" the alcoholic can be just as obsessive and harmful as the alcoholic's drinking, which many times is a subject of denial for the alcoholic's loved ones.

With these enabling devices in place, an alcoholic is free to continue in the progression of his disease, with his denial intact, until he hits bottom, at which point even the most dedicated drinker must finally admit there is a problem. But there is no way for him to ever hit bottom when it's always covered with pillows. There are self-assessments that can help you determine if you have been enabling an alcoholic.

Was this page helpful?

Article Sources