Addiction Denial

Confronting addiction denial head-on

Navigating the stormy waters of addiction is never an easy journey for both the person struggling and their loved ones. A common obstacle in this journey is the wall of denial – built on a foundation of fear, guilt and confusion. It’s a defence mechanism that’s as treacherous as the addiction itself. This guide aims to illuminate the path through the fog of addiction denial and offer actionable steps towards recovery.

Addiction denial - person holding alcohol

Understanding addiction denial

Addiction denial is a psychological defence mechanism that prevents people from recognising or admitting their substance abuse problem. It is important to understand that denial is not just a mere refusal to admit the truth; it is a complex mental and emotional process that distorts a person’s perception of reality.

Denial in addiction operates on both conscious and subconscious levels. On a conscious level, people may deliberately ignore the negative consequences of their addiction, choosing to focus only on the perceived benefits or temporary relief they receive from their substance abuse.

On a subconscious level, denial can be even more insidious. The mind can employ various defence mechanisms to protect people from the emotional distress associated with acknowledging their addiction. For example, they may suppress memories related to their substance use, rationalise their behaviour or redirect blame onto external factors or people.

The stages of addiction denial

Understanding the stages of denial in addiction can help identify where a person is on their journey towards acceptance and recovery. The stages of addiction denial include:

1. Unawareness…

At this stage, the person genuinely doesn’t recognise their addictive behaviour as problematic.

2. Resistance…

Even when confronted with the consequences of their actions, the person resists the notion that they have an addiction problem.

3. Admission…

The person admits to having a problem but may still resist change or deny they need help and believe they can manage the problem on their own.

4. Acceptance…

This is the turning point where the person fully acknowledges their addiction. Their need for help overcomes their denial.

Not everyone will go through all of these stages of addiction denial, but most people exhibit some degree of denial before accepting they need help.

What triggers denial in addiction?

Several factors can trigger or reinforce addiction denial, which people may or may not be conscious of. Each factor adds another layer of complexity to addiction and prevents sufferers from getting the help they need. They include:

Fear of withdrawal…

The physical symptoms of withdrawal can be incredibly uncomfortable, while the psychological symptoms can take a serious toll. The anticipation of these symptoms can contribute to a deep-seated fear that reinforces denial and prevents the person from seeking help.

Social stigma…

The social stigma attached to addiction can also reinforce denial. Society often views addiction negatively, associating it with weakness, lack of willpower or moral failure. This can cause people to hide their addiction, denying it to themselves and others to avoid feelings of shame or embarrassment or because they are worried about how it will affect their lives.

Fear of change…

Change, even when positive, can be intimidating and overwhelming. Admitting to addiction means confronting the need for significant lifestyle changes, such as ending relationships with substance-using friends or seeking professional help from a professional. This prospect of change can be daunting enough to trigger or bolster addiction denial.

Co-occurring disorders…

Co-occurring mental health disorders such as depression or anxiety can complicate a person’s ability to recognise their addiction. These conditions can mask the symptoms of addiction or even justify substance use in the person’s mind. For instance, a person with anxiety might convince themselves that they need alcohol to calm their nerves, viewing it as self-medication rather than an addiction.

Addiction denial - woman dealing with stress

Top tips: How to help an addict in denial

It is never easy to speak to a loved one about addiction, especially if they are in denial about the situation. Here are some simple tips that will make the conversation easier:

Educate yourself…

The first step you can take is to educate yourself about addiction, its causes and its impacts. This understanding will help you appreciate what your loved one is going through and also arm you with more knowledge to shine a light through their denial.

Choose the right moment…

Communication is vital in breaking through the walls of denial, and choosing the right time and setting for the conversation is crucial. Opt for a quiet, private setting where they feel safe and comfortable and try to arrange it when they are not under the influence or stressed.

Express your concerns properly…

Next, it’s important to express your concerns. Share your worries and observations without blaming or criticising them, and use “I” statements to prevent them from becoming defensive. For example, “I am worried about how your drug use is harming you.”

Give specific examples…

This is crucial for breaking through the fog of denial. Share your feelings and concerns, using specific examples of how their behaviour has affected them and others. It is important, however, to stay calm, empathetic and patient throughout the conversation, as accusations, blame, and arguments will likely lead to denial and further resistance.

Encourage them to seek professional help…

Suggesting they enter rehab, read one of our help guides or speak to their GP can all be very beneficial. Remember, you can’t force someone to recognise their addiction; they have to arrive at that understanding themselves. Your role is to support and encourage them towards that realisation and, if/when it comes, help them get the treatment they need.

How to approach different types of addiction denial

Denial of addiction can take many forms, but all can prevent sufferers from seeking the help they need. It is important to know how to talk to an addict in denial depending on what type of denial they are exhibiting:

Absolute denial…

This is the most straightforward type of denial. It involves a complete refusal to acknowledge the existence of addiction, even when faced with hard evidence. Individuals in absolute denial may flatly reject any suggestion of a problem, often expressing surprise or indignation when confronted.

When talking to someone in absolute denial, use concrete examples of their addictive behaviours and the negative consequences but avoid blaming or judging them. Instead, express your concerns in terms of your feelings and observations, using “I” statements. For example, “I feel worried when I see you drinking so much because I can see how much it affects your relationships.”


Minimisation is a subtler form of denial where the person accepts that there might be a problem but significantly downplays its severity or impact. They may argue that their substance use is less frequent or harmful than it truly is.

Dealing with someone who is minimising their addiction offers requires you to gently but firmly challenge their perceptions. Point out the discrepancies between their portrayal of the situation and the actual consequences of their substance use. This can be done by providing specific examples, such as, “You say you only drink socially, but last week you missed work twice because you were recovering from drug use.”


Rationalisation involves creating reasonable but false excuses for addictive behaviour. The person acknowledges their substance use but justifies it with various excuses, often related to stress or emotional distress.

If this is the case, it is important to question their justifications delicately. Encourage them to consider alternative ways of dealing with stress or emotional distress that don’t involve substance use. For example, you might say, “I understand that your job is stressful, but there are other ways to cope that could be healthier for you.”


Blaming is a type of denial where the person shifts the responsibility for their addiction onto others or external circumstances. This avoids acknowledging personal responsibility for their substance use.

When talking to someone in denial who is blaming others, try to empathise with their feelings while gently encouraging them to take responsibility for their actions. An approach could be, “I understand that you are hurting, but blaming your ex-partner for your drinking isn’t helping you now.”


Diversion is a more evasive form of denial. When the topic of their addiction comes up, the person quickly changes the subject or shifts the focus onto someone else’s problems.

Conversations with someone who diverts can be challenging, and keeping the conversation focused on their addiction is essential. A possible response to them changing the subject could be, “We can talk about my smoking later, but right now, I’m concerned about your gambling.”

Addiction denial - alcoholic man

Get help for addiction

Denial of addiction is a formidable barrier, but it can be overcome. With the right help and support, the fog of denial can clear, revealing the path to a healthier, happier future. If you have a loved one who is in denial about their addiction, get in touch with Recovery Lighthouse today. We can give you practical advice on how to help them, cross the barrier denial has set and explain more about our rehab treatment programmes.