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.
What Is Alcoholic Denial?
More than 29.5 million people ages 12 and older have an alcohol use disorder (AUD). 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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
More than 78% of people 12 and older drink alcohol. 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.
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.
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. 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.
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. 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.
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. 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. How you talk about alcoholism and the solutions you suggest can make a big difference.
The following three approaches may help you to reach your loved one:
Talk Openly & Often
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.
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.
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.
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.
In MI sessions, counselors help the person to consider the following questions:
- Are there behaviors you should change?
- How would you change these behaviors?
- 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. Others understand that they need treatment after MI, and they willingly enter a program.
Discuss Treatment Benefits
People with severe AUD may be ready to enter treatment as soon as you open the conversation. Choosing a treatment provider 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.
- 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
- I stopped drinking before I could stop lying. Levy S., TIME. Published December 28, 2022. Accessed September 22, 2023
- Alcohol use in the United States: Age groups and demographic characteristics National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Published 2023. Accessed September 22, 2023
- Recent Developments in Alcohol Services Research on Access to Care Schmidt LA., Res. 2016;38(1):27-33
- 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
- Substance use disorders: Motivational interviewing Up to Date. Published March 1, 2022. Accessed September 22, 2023