Denial and rationalization are two common defense mechanisms that addicts can use that can slow or prevent recovery. Denial is common among addicts. Denial happens when a person fails to accept or acknowledge a reality. Sometimes the truth hurts, and emotions can be difficult to deal with. Addicts can also be manipulative, and this comes from the addict’s ability to rationalize their behavior to themselves and to convince others that there is not a problem.
Everyone uses defense mechanisms to protect themselves from anxiety and in social settings to cope with what is happening around them. Defense mechanisms are usually healthy ways that people have to deal with whatever is happening but become pathological when maladaptive behaviors emerge from the unconscious mind to manipulate or deny reality. Addicts use defense mechanisms to rationalize their addiction and to protect their own ego.
Addicts deny that they have a problem. They deny that they are addicted or that an addiction is the cause of any negative consequences. Often times an addict will blame others for problems and therefore shift the focus off of themselves and the addiction so that someone else or something else is to blame. This is also the way that an addict compartmentalizes their addiction because morally the addict most likely does not want to be an addict or behave like an addict. Extreme denial can lead to dissociative disorders where the addict becomes detached from reality all together and can no longer cope.
Rationalization is the addict’s way of justifying their behavior both to themselves and to other people around them. Addicts can use logic manipulatively to avoid the issues of their addiction. They can even convince their friends and family that nothing is wrong and sometimes even have their friends and family rationalize their behavior for them. Projection and acting out are other defense mechanisms, but they also stem from the addicts ability to deny that they have a problem and shift the blame on to others therefore creating the rationalization that nothing is wrong with them and that someone or something else is to blame.
Defense mechanisms become an addict’s reality and recovery becomes further out of reach. Denial is a major roadblock to recovery and the main reason that addicts do not seek help. Nobody wants to admit that they are wrong or that they have a problem and lots of people do not like asking for help even when they know that they have a problem. A person will have a hard time accepting the fact that an addiction has taken control of their life and that can prevent treatment all together.
Family and friends may even deny that someone is addicted and say that the person has a reason for acting the way they do, that something bad is to blame. The sad thing about that is that the addict has to admit that they have a problem and take responsibility for their life. And sometimes, family and friends may know that their loved one is addicted but the more they push the addict to get help, the more the addict becomes further withdrawn from the people that could be positive influences in their life.
Common behaviors may include acting out, accusing loved ones of be judgmental and condemning, playing the victim, or manipulating the situation and blaming others, and minimizing harm caused by the addiction.
Depression and other mood disorders may also surface further complicating things for both the addict and the people around them. The addict may seem like they just don’t care. The addict may truly believe that they are the only one affected by the addiction and not realize the negative effects the addiction is having on their family.
Denial is just the start of complications to treatment. As the addict denies that they have a problem and places the blame on other things or other people, family and friends may also question their own beliefs about the addiction. Everyone starts to rationalize the addict’s behavior and make excuses. Reality becomes distorted and an addict may withdraw themselves from anyone that disagrees with them and become isolated, or they could just decide to hang around with other people that share their addiction. Afterall, those people are more understanding and less judgmental. The best thing that family and friends can do is admit that there is an addiction and to be understanding rather than judgmental.
How we approach intervention is important. It is possible to push a person further away and further into a crowd of people that share their addiction. This can result in death and other horrible outcomes. Strategies that are proven to be effective are motivational techniques that involve both the addict and their family and support group. Showing an addict how their addiction is affecting the people they care about can sometimes motivate them to change their life and their behaviors. Nobody wants to hurt the person they care about. It is also important to show the family how their action may be enabling the addiction or pushing the addict further away from accepting help. Counseling centers have experts that can help guide a family to accept that their loved one is addicted and teach family and friends to listen and understand the addict so that they can help them recover.
One of the best resources for family and caregivers is the National Alliance of Mental Health (NAMI) and a motivational tool they published several years ago for family members dealing with schizophrenia, “I am not sick, I don’t need help”. Although the booklet is written for people dealing with a family member that suffers schizophrenia, the techniques used to help them want help are also useful to help an addict accept help and it is a useful tool to teach family members and friends how they can help someone they care about who is suffering from addiction or some other disorder.
If someone you know is looking for free resources.
SAMSHA National Helpline 1-800-662-4357