Denial inhibits change—so why does it happen and how can we resolve it?
In Lou’s latest episode of The diary of a problem drinkers’ partner, published last week, she described the denial that was prevalent in her home. Her husband denied that he drank too much, indeed sometimes denied that he been drinking at all and Lou denied that there was a problem with her husband’s drinking. So why is it that something that has a huge negative impact (and is so blindingly obvious in hindsight) is either ignored or apparently invisible at the time?
We tend to use the term denial to describe this situation, as in he or she is in denial. Although this has come to be a pejorative term, denial is not always negative. In fact we could say that sometimes denial is a necessary condition if society is to survive.
If we were to make an issue of everything that our husbands, wives, children, family members or friends said or did that irritated us—we would probably find ourselves bitter and alone very quickly. For the sake of a peaceful life we, well most of us, tend to ignore many things otherwise we would be in constant conflict. So in that respect denial can be a positive behaviour, especially when the irritations are fairly trivial.
To illustrate this point, I have a friend who is prone to being a bit over talkative. He embroiders every anecdote with an enormous amount of boring and needless detail. If I were to point this out every time he indulged in his verbal sedation he would be very hurt and would probably eventually start to avoid me in future. So do I avoid bringing this up just to avoid hurting him and losing his friendship? That is, of course, part of the reason but there is more to it than that.
He is a friend and has been for many years because there is much more to him than a boring story teller. He is kind and generous with his time and is fiercely loyal and reliable. We have many shared memories and hope to create many more. So the fact that I overlook a trait that is mostly harmless; although it can feel like torture when I’m having an off day—is not such a great hardship. I wonder (but not too much!!) how many irritating traits of mine that he overlooks?
What we have been talking about so far are trivial traits and behaviours. They may be irritating but they seldom affect our wellbeing. What Lou discussed in her article could hardly be described as trivial, it badly affected her peace of mind, her health and her children. So what was going on there that, despite the pain, they could still ignore or deny that the drinking and consequent behaviour was happening?
In the mid 1990’s I carried out a piece of research that began to answer that particular question. Most researchers at the time were asking the obvious question, how do drinkers stop drinking? So most of the research was focused on treatment or routes to recovery. I became increasingly interested in a different question—why do drinkers NOT stop drinking? After all it was usually blatantly obvious to even casual onlookers that there was a problem, so why could the drinker not see it? What I found from this research was quite interesting.
Problem drinkers were well aware of the consequences of their drinking. Indeed they lived with these consequences, often on a daily basis, and often woke up after a binge to terrible hangovers, injuries from accidents or assault etc. One researcher called these consequences the 4L’s—Liver, Lover, Livelihood and Law. That is consequences to their health, to their relationships, to their jobs and even with the law. Indeed they expected these things to happen. But there was a major barrier to these consequences resulting in a change of drinking behaviour—alcohol gave them so much. It gave them confidence, self-esteem, courage, made them feel good about themselves, banished fear and made life feel good. And the more of these good things that they got from alcohol, the harder it was for them to change.
Like I said about my friend above, yes his talking could be irritating but he brought so much more. So I tended to make excuses for him, it’s just that he’s lonely, he has no one to talk to, he really needs to have someone listen to him. Although the consequences are much more severe with the drinker, the process is actually the same. Yes she was sick but that is because she ate something that upset her stomach. Yes he got into a fight but it was the other guy’s fault. OK he was late home and he said he would be on time but he ran into an old friend that he had not seen for years and they just got talking. The point is that the more 'good things' that the drinker gets from alcohol the more they are likely to attribute negative consequences to other circumstances, events or people. Because if all these negative consequences are due to things other than alcohol, then drinking must be ok.
So at this point you are likely to say—so you mean the drinker lies to defend drinking? Well, kinda, but it's not quite that simple or straightforward. You see when I was the drinker technically I wasn’t lying as I actually believed what I was saying. The process is a subconscious rather than conscious one. The mind acts to protect the belief that alcohol is good and the drinker may be unaware of what is actually happening.
The obvious downside is that it means that the alcoholic feels no need to change their drinking behaviour since there is no problem with the drinking itself. This is why organizations like Synanon (a treatment agency that became a cult) believed that denial had to be confronted head on and broken down before an alcoholic would change. To some degree that is true, the denial does have to be challenged but some studies have found that head on confrontation is actually counterproductive as it tends to make the denial even more entrenched. So we need to confront in a way that is effective.
Lou also wrote about the denial that she herself practiced, for example my husband can’t be an alcoholic because he doesn’t …. (fill in any excuse that is appropriate). The process is the same as the alcoholic’s denial, they love the drinker and therefore cannot bear to believe that this person could be flawed in this way. Therefore there must be another explanation, she is stressed at work, bored at home etc. There are other reasons why denial is found in families and that is to protect it from the shame and stigma of having an alcoholic in the household. Families will often withdraw socially and try to put on a front so that their dilemma does not become public knowledge.
However, just like the denial practiced by the alcoholic, the family’s denial can help to maintain the addiction for much longer. A common practice in recent times has been the 'Intervention'. Like the practices of Synanon, a group of people that are thought to have influence on the drinker are gathered together. The alcoholic is then confronted as the group express its concern in regard to the drinker’s health and the consequences of the drinking on his/her life, family, job etc. Sometimes these interventions can be highly successful, sometimes they are not.
In Bottled Up we have a program of techniques and strategies to help overcome denial. If either Lou’s article or this one has resonated with you and your circumstances and you want to find out more about denial or effective methods of confrontation, we warmly invite you to have a look at what Bottled Up has to offer.