Should I tell an alcoholic they are in denial?

Denial is a powerful force that helps us protect ourselves. When is it OK to address this defense mechanism in others as related to drinking and alcohol abuse? Suggestions that can help you answer the question, “Should I tell an alcoholic they are in denial?” here.

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What is the psychological state of denial?

“Denial” is a term that we use in modern language quite often. People “deny” or prohibit themselves from certain actions. You can be “in denial” of your true behaviors or feelings. Or we can make an event smaller in our head in order to feel better about it. But what is denial? And when are people in denial?

Psychologists use the word DENIAL to describe the state of mind some people use to cope with reality. Theorists such as Anna and Sigmund Freud believed that we use denial to protect the immature ego self from feelings of guilt, anxiety or inferiority. In the most basic sense (and what’s important for our discussion here), denial is the insistence that a known fact is false, even in the face of overwhelming evidence that the fact is true. And further, denial is the refusal to acknowledge what has, is, or will happen.

How do you know an alcoholic is in denial?

The general existence of denial is fairly easy to confirm, even for non-specialists or people untrained in psychology. In fact, most alcoholics will reject the fact that they have a problem with drinking at all. As alcoholics further develop dependence on alcohol, they also progress from inattention to willful blindness of problem drinking, a defense system that allows them to ignore the problem. Instead, alcoholics tend to blame problems related to drinking on something or someone else.

Signs of alcoholism denial

  • annoyance with criticism about drinking
  • blaming other people or situations for personal problems related to drinking
  • expressions of guilt about drinking
  • inability to honestly answer questions about the amount of drinking
  • inability to honestly answer questions about frequency of drinking
  • rejection that more than five drinks (for men) or four drinks (for women) in one day is too much

Denial is also a social force

Recognizing and accepting an alcohol problem is the first step toward getting better. But denial of alcoholism symptoms is fairly common. For example, even when people experience withdrawal symptoms from alcohol, they nearly always deny that they have a drinking problem. This defense mechanism ultimately leaves it up to co-workers, friends, or relatives to recognize symptoms and to encouraging alcoholism treatment. This can be tricky.

Anthropologists suggest that the ability to look the other way, while potentially destructive, is also critically important to forming and nourishing close relationships. Sometimes, it is wise to manage a difficult person or personal situation by ignoring a problem but other times silence can bother our conscience.

When should I confront an alcoholic about problem drinking?

Unfortunately, there is no common denominator for addressing a person in denial of alcoholism about problem drinking. This is because each situation is different, each potential alcoholic and friends/family/colleagues are different. But your decision will probably be based on a few factors:

  • how much you care for the person
  • how close you feel to the person
  • how confident you are that a drinking problem exists (ability to give examples)
  • how comfortable you feel with conflict
  • your communication skills

Ultimately, ONLY YOU can know when to inform someone about problem drinking. Your conscience will guide you. And so will best practices for alcoholism interventions. Click here to learn more about alcoholic intervention techniques. And leave your messages, questions or comments below. We are here to help.

Reference sources: Patient education about alcoholism diagnosis, University of Maryland Medical Center
NYTimes Varieties of Denial, 2007
About the author
Lee Weber is a published author, medical writer, and woman in long-term recovery from addiction. Her latest book, The Definitive Guide to Addiction Interventions is set to reach university bookstores in early 2019.
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