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If accepting there is a problem is the first step in addiction recovery, then denial is the wall you must climb first. Denial is a common word used in recovery and treatment. It occurs when a person fails to see their increasing need to use or drink. (1)


There is a science behind this driving force. Put simply, the brain distorts truth because taking drugs feels good. That craving to use drugs creates tunnel vision. All you see is the need, not the effect that need has on your life.

But knowing denial is a coping mechanism doesn’t solve the problem. Understanding that denial is a normal reaction and developing a way to recognize it puts you on the right path toward treatment and sobriety.

What is Denial?

Denial is altering the reality of a situation to fit your needs. It comes in varying degrees:

  • Minimizing
  • Rationalizing
  • Forgetting
  • Self-deception
  • Repression

Denial helps a person manage an uncomfortable fact. In this case, that addiction is a real problem.

Acceptance vs. Submission

Acceptance of the need for treatment may feel like submitting, but it really is just overcoming denial to see the reality. Facing addiction is difficult, because it means acknowledging a painful truth. Denial takes a lot of energy, though. With acceptance comes relief and a sense of self-control.

Denial and Dual Diagnosis

Depressed young man

Denial can come once treatment begins as well. Drug abuse is often a response to the symptoms of another mental disorder. A person who is depressed, for example, may try to mask sadness by using drugs. (2)

During the treatment assessment, the counselors will look for signs of a comorbid, or associated, mental health problem that relates to the addiction. Even an addict willing to accept his/her addiction may have difficulty believing they have a mental illness, as well.

Dual diagnosis is a critical part of developing a treatment plan. It is essential to deal with both problems at once to lower the risk of relapse.

How to Spot Denial

The most effective way to recognize denial in yourself is by looking for a pattern. What is your attitude about drug use?

  • “I don’t like to talk about it” – Avoidance
  • “My problem isn’t that bad” – Minimizing
  • “I only use when I feel stressed” – Rationalizing
  • “If my boss would stop picking on me, I would never use” – Blaming
  • “My friends use more than I do” – Comparing
  • “I will stop using if you leave me alone” – Compliance
  • “I’ll admit I use if you leave me alone” – Manipulation

These are all classic signs of denial. If you're wondering about denial, you've probably already begun to question your drug use. That's a potential indicator that you are close to moving past that wall into acceptance.

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Change isn't easy. It takes courage to accept that you need help. Making that difficult choice is the first step to taking back control of your life. Now is the time to start getting familiar with treatment methods and resources available to you.

If you're not quite there yet, but you do recognize denial in yourself, sit down and make a list of all the ways drugs make you powerless. Do they cost you days at work? Do they start arguments with your family and friends? Do they leave you feeling guilty and full of self-hate? Are they causing you legal problems? Now, look at all the ways treatment can give you back that power.


  1. Caroline Cassels, "Americans in Denial About Alcohol Abuse Disorders," Medscape Medical News, April 15, 2011,
  2. "DurgFacts: Comorbidity: Addictiona and Other Mental Disorders," National Institute on Drug Abuse, March 2011,

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