Breaking Through Denial
Looking in the mirror and accepting what we see can be one of the hardest things we ever do. It’s especially hard when the image staring us in the face is painful or doesn’t fit with how we want to see ourselves. Sometimes, the truth is so painful that we avoid it at any cost.
Refusing to accept a painful reality is a psychological defense called denial. We use denial to protect ourselves from knowledge, insight or awareness that threatens our self-esteem.
Denial is the tendency of alcoholics or addicts to distort realities associated with their drinking or drug use in spite of evidence that shows the behaviors are harmful or detrimental to a person’s mental, physical and social well being.
When confronted by others about their issues, most alcoholics, addicts, and people in general are at different stages of readiness to change. The first stage is pre-contemplation, where an addict is not even thinking about his or her substance use. The contemplation stage begins when someone starts to question whether he or she needs to change some behavior or belief. The next stage is preparation, or determination, as a person starts to look at the alternatives available to him or her. Next is the action stage, when a person starts to implement changes. And, finally, there is the maintenance stage, when a person works at maintaining the new behaviors of no alcohol or drug use and other positive changes. Determining readiness to change is important.
“I could quit anytime I want to.” “I’d quit using if people would quit ragging on me.” “If you were in my situation, you’d drink, too.” These are typical statements of someone in the pre-contemplation stage, or denial. These statements are baffling and frustrating to family members and others who care about the person. Often others notice problematic behavior before the person with the problem does, as an addict’s ability to track reality is often impaired. If a person doesn’t see a problem, then he or she wouldn’t see the need to change. People in this stage are also likely to react negatively or even angrily to people who believe they have a problem. Sometimes the stigma and shame associated with alcoholism as a moral failure keep people from dealing with the denial and overcoming the barriers to change.
It is a myth that harshly confronting a person with the consequences of his or her behavior helps people break through denial; in most cases, it actually builds up the defense and resentment. Often people fear the shame and stigma associated with alcoholism or addiction. They fear rejection and confrontation and facing up to their guilt and low self-esteem. All of these things keep people from changing.
Family members can help by allowing the chemically dependent person to experience the consequences of his or her drinking or drug behaviors. If family members give feedback, it should be when the person is sober or straight and it should be expressed in a caring rather than confrontational manner. Trying to talk with someone who is high or drunk only leads to frustration for both the family member and the person abusing alcohol or drugs.