When someone with an addiction is in denial, their mind creates a system of rationalizations, justifying their harmful behaviors. The human mind has an extraordinary ability to come up with reasons to make us feel better about our behavior.
“I’m not that bad… I’m not hurting anyone else… It’s Friday… I deserve it.”
Many different types of denial keep someone stuck in addiction. A common feature that drives many types of denial is a psychological phenomenon called the self-serving bias. It is our tendency to attribute positive outcomes to ourselves and negative outcomes to external events outside our control.
For a gambling addiction, this often consists of the thought that you win because you are skilled, but you lose because of bad luck.
This type of denial is different than lying because the person believes their own reasons. It is like lying to yourself and believing it. This type of self-deceptive denial comes in various forms among persons with addiction. Some of the most common types of denial consist of the following:
- Optimism Bias
- Control Fallacies
- Mental Filtering
- Just-world Fallacy
- Externalizing Responsibility
Each of these are types of cognitive distortions, logical fallacies, or defense mechanisms that keep a person trapped in a state of denial regarding the nature of their addiction.
I composed this list by compiling over one hundred responses by persons with addiction or their family members who shared their experiences justifying an addiction. I thematically analyzed each response, classifying them into eight sections.
Let’s take a closer look at each of these types of denial and how they serve as rationalizations that maintain an addiction.
Minimization consists of psychologically diminishing the severity of an issue. These types of denial consist of the following statements:
- I drink less than others whose lives aren’t a mess, so it’s not like I have a problem.
- I’m not as bad as other people.
- Well, at least I’m not like THAT.
- I’m not an alcoholic.
- I still have a job and lots of friends.
- I’ve never been violent or abusive, and I’ve never gotten into trouble with the law.
- It’s not a big deal.
- I don’t use it every day.
- It’s only a couple nights a week.
- I can go for one more, why the hell not? I have the money, time, and privacy.
- It’s free/ cheap, so no real effects.
- I still take care of myself, so I’m not really having problems.
- I’ll do this amount, but not all of it. No one can tell.
- This is my one vice. I’ll just do it occasionally, so I don’t get addicted.
- Jesus turned water into wine… so drinking can’t be such a bad thing.
- What’s the difference were all gonna die eventually?
- I’ve never really wanted a long life anyway, so if it kills me, it kills me. I’d rather die young having had lots of fun than live a long boring life.
Gambling-specific forms of minimization consist of the following:
- I only have $200 left, so I might as well go.
- I received some back pay, so I justified it as money I was not expecting.
- It’s only $50.
- I don’t drink or do drugs, so this is a healthier addiction.
Optimism bias consists of an unrealistic belief that things will work out, and one will not experience negative consequences. This type of denial may include the following statements:
- Even though I couldn’t function today and get anything done, I’m SURE tomorrow will be different.
- I’ll just go to the bar and not drink.
- I’ll only have one drink.
- I’ll only have a few drinks… no drugs.
- I’ll only have a bit of cocaine, nothing else.
- I will just gamble until my next win when I get back all I’ve lost.
- This machine is about to pay out huge.
- If I win big, it would solve all my financial problems and could help my family.
- I have paid rent, and I have been living on one meal a day for years, so I will be able to get through it.
This bias is particularly relevant in gambling addiction since the random intermittent reward structure reinforces the motivation to continue through the hope of a future payout.
Avoidance coping consists of avoiding distressful thoughts or emotions rather than effectively dealing with them. Addictive substance or behaviors serve as a way to avoid these thoughts or emotions in the short-term, causing further long-term distress.
Using a substance to self-medicate in this way can feel like the drug is keeping you alive, helping you function every day, but one must consider whether or not this is a short-term gain at a long term cost.
Using substances or addictive behaviors to avoidantly cope is like continuing to walk on a broken leg, taking painkillers instead of dealing with the issue.
This is a particularly sensitive area that needs to be approached with empathy and compassion since simply moralizing this form of self-medication is not helpful. These areas can be carefully explored further in a collaborative therapeutic relationship.
Many persons report using substances to cope with depression, anxiety, or anger, while in reality, realizing they just didn’t want to feel their emotions. Common statements include:
- I drink to quiet my mind.
- I’m more relaxed.
- It makes me better socially.
- All my friends only like me when I’m half in the bag and having fun.
- I have a high level of stress in my life.
This consists of using a substance to avoid the pain and intrusive thoughts associated with trauma. Again, it is important not to moralize these reasons, dismissing them as mere excuses. Effective treatment can address one’s relationship to these thoughts. Statements might include the following:
- I have PTSD from bad parenting.
- I was abused as a child.
- It was here for me when no one else was.
- I am unable to handle this tragic loss.
Avoiding physical pain
This consists of using a substance to ineffectively cope with physical pain and should not be conflated with using a substance to effectively cope with physical pain. Substances can be used either way, and the key is knowing the difference. Consulting a medical specialist in your specific area of chronic pain might help determine the difference.
Another way substances are used to cope with physical symptoms in the short-term is to avoid withdrawal. This is particularly relevant for alcohol or opioids since the withdrawal can be physically debilitating for a significant period. Many individuals justify continued use due to the inconvenience of going through the withdrawal symptoms. Statements might include the following:
- I’m letting myself drink because it is better than the shaking.
- I don’t have time to get sick from the withdrawal.
- I won’t be able to function and take care of my family.
Avoiding the short-term dysfunction of withdrawal often results in longer-term consequences.
Avoiding boredom is a common justification for an addiction. Working in problem gambling prevention, this is one of the more common reasons I hear. Statements often include the following:
- There’s nothing else to do.
- This is the only thing going on in this city.
- There’s not a lot of places to go for people my age.
These rationalizations seem entirely true, but upon further exploration, there are usually several other possible outlets for entertainment.
These are a form of cognitive distortion that makes someone overestimate or underestimate the level of control they have over a situation. When overestimating the level of control, it may also be considered an optimism bias. When underestimating the level of control, it can lead to hopelessness and an unwillingness to accept what one can control.
Phrases that highlight an overestimation of control include the following:
- I can stop whenever I want.
- I can do it on my own.
- If I really thought I had a problem, I could quit.
- I’ve gotÂ this under control.
Phrases that highlight an underestimation of control include the following:
- The point of no return has been reached.
- It’s a disease, so I’m powerless to do anything about it.
- My father was an addict, my grandfather was an addict, so it is genetic.
- It’s not my fault… my parents made me this way.
- Anyone else in my situation/ circumstances would probably be doing the same or worse, so I can’t be blamed.
Mental filtering is aÂ cognitive distortion that occurs when someone selectively focuses on certain positive or negative aspects of an event, magnifying certain elements and minimizing others. It is one of the major factors that maintain denial by reinforcing an optimism bias.
For example, a person may focus on specific ways a substance makes them function better while neglecting the harmful effects. Common statements include the following:
- It helps me stay focused and get things done.
- I can’t think straight without it.
- I’m not as smart without it.
- I still go to work.
- I can still maintain all of my responsibilities.
- I take care of my responsibilities (i.e., raise the children, pay the bills, etc.) I am entitled to a little discretionary fun.
- It only affects me.
- I’m not hurting anyone but myself.
In the case of gambling addiction, this can maintain a state of financial denial when someone focuses on the wins and forgets about the losses. One can also justify the increasing expenses by focusing on how the bills are paid while neglecting to focus on savings.
Normalizing is another way of maintaining an optimism bias, diminishing a sense of personal responsibility, and selectively focusing on the entertainment value rather than the harms. Common statements may include the following:
- Everyone’s doing it.
- It’s normal.
- Who doesn’t drink!?
- If alcohol was really bad, it would be illegal.
- It’s natural.
- It’s prescribed.
- It’s a special event.
- I’m over 18.
- It’s Friday.
- It’s a social thing.
This is a cognitive distortion where someone believes good things happen to good people, and bad people are ultimately punished. This belief can sometimes manifest as self-victimization when one blames oneself for a situation, accepting their suboptimal lifestyle as a form of punishment. Statements might include the following:
- It’s my fault.
- I deserve this terrible lifestyle.
- I’m not good enough for anyone anyway, so I might as well.
- I deserve the pain I have.
This consists of not taking responsibility and blaming others instead. It also commonly manifests as a form of projection whereby one criticizes others for things that resemble their own faults. Statements might include the following:
- If you were to spend more time with me, I wouldn’t have to run to the bar/ casino.
- If you had done a better job with my dinner or ironing my clothes or keeping the house clean, I wouldn’t need to do the substance/ gamble.
- You took me there. It’s your fault I gamble.
- I gamble because of all the pressure you put on me, and I want to give you more because I never feel like I’m good enough.
If you’re interested in the topic of responsibility, I’ve written more in my article Why Responsibility is So Important.
This list contains some of the most common types of denial, keeping someone stuck in addiction through rationalizations that justify their behavior. If the above statements resemble your own thoughts, it might be helpful to consider their accuracy.
This article also does not imply that every person with an addiction is in denial. Persons with addiction are in various stages of contemplating change and might be fully aware of the harmful impact of their actions.
Also, I do not intend to imply every person who uses substances has an addiction. There are many ways to use psychoactive substances effectively that do not result in harmful long-term consequences. If you are interested in learning more, check out my article When Does Something Become an Addiction?
Lastly, this article is not an exhaustive list of the various types of denial, so feel free to leave a comment if you have one that has not appeared here and I will add it in.