Denying addiction: How do I get out of denial?
Pretending that what IS happening ISN’T happening … keeps us from being able to recognize the truth of our own experiences. And denial can keep us from genuinely participating in the good parts of our lives. So how do you get out of it?
The exercises outlined here help you start challenging the assumptions we (as children or loved ones of addicted people) make about ourselves based on the distortions of addiction. When you start doing this, you can start making affirmative choices about who you are and who you are going to be! Aimed at children of alcoholic parents or addict parents or families consumed by addiction, we invite your questions, comments, or feedback about denial at the end.
Get out of denial and into real happiness!
There is a joke that people in recovery like to tell: What is the longest river in the world? De-nial! The Nile River is indeed the longest river in the world, and denial as a habit can prevent you from reaching serenity, happiness or peace if you stay in it for too long!
What is denial?
Denial is declaration that something is untrue. If you live with, or have ever lived with an alcoholic or an addict this is important, because we develop codependent relationships based on acting like nothing is wrong and we may be in deep denial without even realizing it. But why does denial matter? What harm is there in pretending that someone is sick when they are really hung-over, or that someone is just forgetful when they are actually stoned?
The harm is that when you distort reality, it is very difficult to do so selectively, so the denial you practice around the addict’s behavior seeps into your understanding of other relationships, of your own feelings, of your experiences physically and emotionally. Ultimately, you build a flawed perception of the world that impacts every part of your life. You stop making proactive decisions about what is happening and you operate based on reactive habits from a distorted world-view. Imagine if you had to live your life in the fun house at a carnival, after a while it would probably get very difficult to see things in a “normal” way.
When I first started on my recovery journey in Al-Anon a family member said to me, “Stop dwelling on the past, just move on.” There is both good and bad in this statement, both a path toward serenity and a recipe for destructive denial and it is that combination that so many people who live with addicts or alcoholics struggle with. Dwelling on problems or seeing only the worst part of our experience can keep us feeling unhappy and hopeless. But pretending that what is happening isn’t, or denying that what we feel is not real … keep us from being able to recognize the truth our experience, and that keeps us from genuinely participating in the good parts of our lives.
Denial is not always bad
Denial is not a bad thing all the time. It can keep us safe and protected emotionally when there are things around us that we can’t control and when we are too young to make our own choices. But as we grow we are given the opportunity to make affirmative choices about how we experience our life and denial prevents us from being able to participate in reality. Continuing to deny the truth of an alcoholic or addicted parent as you mature means that you hold onto behavior patterns from childhood.
Why does Dad yell every time I come in the house and the screen door closes with a bang? Maybe when we were little we were told that it was because it would break the door, or we were clumsy and careless. We can keep telling that story as adults and limit our lives based on stories that may not be true for who we really are. Or, we can look at what is and acknowledge that when Dad is hung over, the door closing with a bang hurts his head because of the choices he has made, not because of anything about us at all.
Figuring out what is true
For the child of an alcoholic or addict being able to live a happy, serene, joyful life often means that you have to look back at the past without the lens of denial in order to figure what was true. Taking the time to peal away the distortions of denial is not about dwelling on the negative, it is about providing room for understanding, opportunity and hope. If we can understand why Mom or Dad yelled really we allow ourselves to become free from those distorted perceptions and create opportunities for who we are and how we want to live in the world today.
How do I get out of denial?
Start uncovering who you are without the denial that comes from addiction. Denial keeps us from knowing who we really are, what we think, what we like and how we want to live our lives. This exercise is a chance to start challenging assumptions we make about ourselves based on the distortions of addiction, and to make affirmative choices for who we are and who we are going to be!
Here is a simple exercise that you can do for yourself, or with the help of a support group or psychotherapist.
1. Make a list of three attributes that describe you. Start the description like this, “I am good at _______________ OR I am bad at ____________________________.”
2. For each attribute you list write down the name of the person who has most recently said this about you (it is okay to write down your own name).
3. Finally, write down whether you agree or disagree with the statement (even if you are the person saying it); why do you agree or why do you not?
Ending denial: questions?
Do you have any more questions about addressing denial of addiction? Please leave your questions and comments here, and we’ll try to respond to you personally and promptly.
Photo credit: Madeleine Ball