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Alcoholic Denial: How to Help Someone Who Is in Denial

Alcoholic denial is a coping mechanism people use to avoid treatment for problem drinking. Someone in denial may refuse to get any kind of help despite the real issues their drinking causes. They simply don’t believe the problem exists.

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Dealing with denial isn’t easy. You may need to discuss the problem repeatedly before the person hears, understands, and acts on your concerns. But your persistence and compassion could help the person get critical care. 

Important Terms You Should Know

If you haven’t researched alcohol use disorders before, some of the terminology involving addiction and recovery could be unfamiliar to you. These are a few phrases you might hear:

  • Alcoholic denial: Alcoholic denial involves people who drink too much and refuse to admit that it’s a problem.
  • AUD: This is an acronym for alcohol use disorder. This word is the preferred way to discuss drinking too much, as opposed to words like alcoholic or drinker.
  • Coping mechanism: A coping mechanism is a behavior people use to deal with something difficult, such as AUD.

What Is Alcoholic Denial?

More than 29.5 million people ages 12 and older have an alcohol use disorder (AUD).[1] People with alcoholism denial don’t believe they’re part of this group. 

Denial is a coping mechanism. People who deny they have a problem with drinking don’t need to change their habits or alter their lives. If there isn’t a problem, life can continue as is.

But unless you can break through denial, the problem won’t disappear. People with AUD need treatment before their drinking patterns become ingrained and harder to break. 

The Psychology of Alcoholic Denial

People in alcoholic denial aren’t trying to harm others or avoid the consequences of their drinking. Instead, they’re dealing with a very real psychological aspect of addiction.

Alcoholic denial works as a shield, allowing the person to reject unpleasant truths. Deep down, they may know that their drinking isn’t healthy. In time, they can develop cognitive dissonance, or a sense that they’re trying to hold two conflicting beliefs at the same time.

While the denial is helpful in the short term, it can hinder long-term recovery. It prevents people from addressing and acknowledging the root of the problem.

Signs of Denial in Alcoholism 

People with alcoholic denial tend to share the following characteristics. Knowing what they are can help you understand when to hold a conversation.[2] 


Deception is a core part of alcohol use disorder. As one writer puts it, lying allowed her to bury the details of her drinking severity. She writes, “I couldn’t bear the idea of my friends and family seeing me at my lowest, so I constructed a house — brick by brick, lie by lie — to protect myself.”[2]

Alcohol denial can involve lying about how much they drink, when they drink, and how those habits make them feel. Those lies can also obscure drinking consequences, such as drunk driving offenses, hospital visits, and job losses. 

Example: Martha went to the bar after work, and while she was there, she had five glasses of wine. She’s embarrassed about her drinking, and she knows she should stop. When she gets home, she tells her partner she was working late on an important project, and she brushes her teeth immediately to hide the evidence.


People with AUD keep drinking despite the consequences. Brain changes caused by alcohol are to blame. But someone in denial can choose a different person, place, or thing to target. 

Someone in denial might blame others for making alcohol available. They might blame coworkers or friends for drinking in front of them. They might blame restaurants for offering cocktails. Anyone is to blame but the person who takes the drink. 

Example: Martha drank four cocktails in 1.5 hours at a happy hour after work. She’s rude to her coworkers. When confronted about her behavior later, she blames her coworkers for organizing the event. 


More than 78% of people 12 and older drink alcohol.[3] For someone in denial, all of these people are proof that drinking is harmless, accepted, and tolerated. 

Comparing can involve the following:

  • Counting how many drinks others have
  • Tallying how many times others have been arrested
  • Discussing movie portrayals of drinking

Each example seems like proof to someone in denial that their habits are normal. 

Example: Martha goes to a wedding on the weekend, and while she’s there, she sees people toasting the happy couple with champagne. She tells herself she can drink all the champagne she wants since everyone else is drinking.


A person in denial looks for reasons that would normalize their habits. This tactic helps them make sense of their out-of-control drinking. 

Someone rationalizing a drink could claim that the day was particularly stressful, so alcohol is a deserved reward. They could cite a holiday, celebration, or the upcoming weekend as good reasons to start drinking. 

Rationalization can also take the form of doomed resolutions. The person might claim they can stop drinking at any point, so one sip won’t hurt. They may also claim that they’re truly in control, no matter what it might look like to an outsider. 

Example: Martha manages to go a full week without drinking. She feels intense alcohol cravings during this period, but she doesn’t give in. When Friday comes, she goes back to the bar to drink. She believes she has proven that she can quit drinking any time she wants to do so.


Denial can prompt people to overlook the consequences of their drinking. They may claim that others are overreacting, and they can change their ways at any point. They may also suggest that their family and friends just don’t understand them. 

Researchers say that experiencing family, work, and legal problems significantly increases the likelihood that people will enter AUD treatment.[4] Getting arrested or fired are two consequences no one can deny. They happen, and they’re documented. 

But all other concerns could be shrugged off by someone in denial. The longer they refuse to admit a problem, the more it is that they’ll keep drinking. 

Example: Martha’s partner is concerned about the drinking. After dinner, her partner brings up specific instances in which Martha has consumed too much. Martha responds by saying her partner is making too much of her habits and that she needs to drink to deal with her stressful job and her boss.

Why Do Some People Deny Their Drinking Problems?

Self-awareness isn’t easy for everyone, and alcohol makes things worse. When you’re drinking and flooded with feel-good chemicals, you simply don’t believe that anything is wrong or that you could harm someone else. 

Researchers say several factors likely contribute to denial.[5] Some people deny alcoholism to avoid the consequences of their behaviors. Others deny the problem to defend themselves from those consequences. 

Some people with AUD have a firm belief about what alcoholism “looks like.” They’ve seen the issue portrayed in films and on television, and they just don’t believe they fit the profile.[5] 

Someone in this form of denial may point out that they’re still married, working, and raising children. They haven’t experienced severe consequences associated with a lifetime of drinking, so they deny that their habits are hurting anyone — including themselves. 

People with alcoholic denial aren’t trying to harm their friends, families, and communities. They’re simply unable or unwilling to admit that their drinking is harmful. 

How to Help an Alcoholic in Denial 

Only about 10% of people with a drug or alcohol use disorder get care for their condition.[4] Researchers call this a treatment gap, and denial could play a part.

Researchers also say that reactions from family and friends to a person’s drinking can motivate treatment.[4] How you talk about alcoholism and the solutions you suggest can make a big difference.

Use these steps to approach and have a conversation with someone in denial:

1. Pick the Right Time & Place

Talking with someone in alcoholic denial isn’t easy, and the conversation can be delicate and complicated. Find a place that’s quiet and calm to talk, and seek out a time when the person is more likely to be sober.

2. Open the Conversation

Tell the person you’re concerned about their drinking. Be specific about the behaviors you’ve seen and the damage they cause. Every detail you add could break through denial and help the person see the problem clearly.

3. Use a Caring Tone

Be open, honest, and caring as you talk. Fighting with the person could deepen their denial and make them less likely to talk with you again. Look for ways to remind the person that you love them and just want them to get better.

4. Ask for Brief Counseling

Some people with AUD aren’t ready to enter formal treatment programs. They may believe that they don’t have alcoholism, or they might think that their issues really aren’t hurting anyone. But they may agree to a few counseling sessions, especially if they believe they can use these meetings to force you to see that their drinking is harmless.

Researchers say brief interventions, especially those using motivational interviewing (MI), can be helpful in breaking past denial.[5]

In MI sessions, counselors help the person to consider the following questions:[6]

  1. Are there behaviors you should change?
  2. How would you change these behaviors?
  3. Why should you change them?

Counseling conversations help people explore how drinking changes their relationships and how life without alcohol might be better. Some people emerge from these conversations and reduce their substance use.[6] Others understand that they need treatment after MI, and they willingly enter a program.

5. Discuss Treatment Benefits

People with severe AUD may be ready to enter treatment as soon as you open the conversation. Choosing a treatment provider for AUD together and agreeing to support the person throughout treatment could reduce their denial and encourage them to stop drinking.

They may be more likely to comply if you make entering treatment easy, so do your research beforehand to make the options clear.

6. Prepare to Repeat

Don’t view your attempt as a failure if your loved one doesn’t acknowledge the problem in your first talk. It often takes repeated conversations, sometimes over months or years, to succeed in your efforts.

Do’s & Don’ts of Helping Someone in Alcoholic Denial

Following a few simple guidelines can help you ensure that you handle this delicate conversation and relationship as effectively as possible.

Do the following things:

  • Talk openly and honestly.
  • Use “I” language, such as, “I feel sad when you come home from the bar.”
  • Research treatment options to help you talk openly with the person.
  • Take care of yourself.
  • Get counseling when you need it.

Don’t do the following things:

  • Confront the person when they are drunk.
  • Use “you” language, such as, “You always go to the bar after work.”
  • Hold your conversation in a public place, like a restaurant or a bar.
  • Focus only on the person’s drinking habits.
  • Isolate yourself to care for the other person.
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Medically Reviewed By Dr. Alison Tarlow

Dr. Alison Tarlow is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist in the States of Florida and Pennsylvania, and a Certified Addictions Professional (CAP). She has been a practicing psychologist for over 15 years. Sh... Read More

Updated May 7, 2024
  1. Alcohol use disorder (AUD) in the United States: Age and demographic characteristics National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Published 2023. Accessed September 22, 2023
  2. I stopped drinking before I could stop lying. Levy S., TIME. Published December 28, 2022. Accessed September 22, 2023
  3. Alcohol use in the United States: Age groups and demographic characteristics National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Published 2023. Accessed September 22, 2023
  4. Recent Developments in Alcohol Services Research on Access to Care Schmidt LA., Res. 2016;38(1):27-33
  5. Schuckit MA, Clarke DF, Smith TL, Mendoza LA., Characteristics associated with denial of problem drinking among two generations of individuals with alcohol use disorders, Alcohol Depend. 2020;217:108274. doi:10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2020.108274
  6. Substance use disorders: Motivational interviewing Up to Date. Published March 1, 2022. Accessed September 22, 2023
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