Defense Mechanism Series: Intellectualizing, Rationalizing, Cockiness, Justifying, Explaining, Analyzing

Defense Mechanisms

Intellectualizing, Rationalizing, Cockiness, Justifying, Explaining, Analyzing 


In my ongoing series of posts featuring the defense mechanisms used by persons with a substance use disorder (SUD), we’ve covered:


  1. Passive/mild styles: Denying, Lying, Silence, Withdrawing
  2. Dismissive techniques: Minimizing, Humor, Compliance
  3. Aggressive tools: Manipulating, Accusing, Judging, Projecting and Threatening, Blaming, Shouting, Defiance

Today, we’ll consider the cerebral set. These are common for many persons with a SUD, but they are especially common to those who consider themselves a “functional addict/alcoholic”* (which, by the way, is a minimizing and dismissive defense mechanism itself.)


The first tactic we’ll look at is Intellectualizing. Using logic, the person with the SUD arranges data and information to convince themselves and others that they do not, in fact, have a problem. They will gather and arrange evidence that there isn’t a problem. 

  • “I’m a professionally certified….”
  • “People trust me with their portfolios (money, medical care, educating their kids…)”
  • “We have plenty of money.”
  • “I’ve never put us at risk.”
  • “It’s not like I am getting it on the street.”
  • “It’s normal and good to have an open and healthy sex life. Look at this article.”
  • “I just had a physical and the doctor said I was fine.”

The intellectualizing person with a SUD can have various levels of success, because (unlike the lying one), what they are saying is often true. It’s just an incomplete and manipulatively presented truth. It’s highly selected to present and feature one viewpoint and angle and to exclude the whole view.

an image of a person playing chess to reinforce the intellectualizing of a substance use disorder instead of addressing it


Another cerebral defense mechanism is Rationalizing. Using this mechanism, the person finds “facts” (often pseudo facts) to support their need to use or partake. Like intellectualizing, it can seem plausible and if given a cursory glance, reasonable. That is, of course, the person’s aim. But when considered under the light of the entirety of the their life, the rationalizations fall very short.

  • “I need to, I am a long distance driver.”
  • “It’s so competitive in my field. It’s the only way to have an edge.”
  • “My pain is chronic. I don’t have a choice.”
  • “It is expected in my industry. You are looked at like less of a professional if you don’t.”
  • “I need it. I have a high sex drive.”


Another intellectual mechanism is Cockiness/Arrogance. The person with the SUD will state the assumption of “I’ve got this” followed by their ability to control the situation. It’s a way of putting others – ANY OTHERS – at a distance.

  • “You already know I can stop. Remember when I stopped last year before the drug test?”
  • You know I can stop. I don’t _________ anymore.” (Fill in the behavior with a behavior that the addict has ceased and allows the addict to submit the current behavior is therefore acceptable and the addict is in control.) 


Also included in this category is the tool of Justifying. A person with a SUD who justifies searches their lives and circumstances for events and situations that appear to be plausible reasons to over-consume or to engage in problematic use. They will often combine the justifying with blaming (discussed in another post).

  • “It’s my marriage. If you had to deal with it, you’d drink, too.”
  • “My bills are enormous. It’s the only relief I get.”
  • “I need to meet my sexual needs somehow, right?”
  • “I have (fill in the blank with disease or pain), and I have to.”

Analyzing and Explaining

Finally in this category, we’ll examine the person with a SUD’s use of Analyzing and Explaining. Weaving these tools together, they will tell a story that is not accurate and uses false logic.  In the end, no sincerity or authentic introspection is present. The underlying premise is that the use or behavior is justified or needed and the addict will launch into a tall tale to explain why. As the details build, the structure tends to collapse rather than support, but the hope is that enough details still stick to offer sufficient reason to obscure the concern over the use. It would be even better if the listener will agree that the use/overuse/problematic use is understandable. This tactic often employs the use of pathos; a persuasive technique basing argument on emotion. The person with problematic use will often use content that is likely to evoke empathy or sympathy and divert the attention away from the alcohol and drug use and towards the pain referenced.

  • “I had an abusive childhood. My parents were never there for me….”
  • “I was sexually abused….”
  • “I remember when all my friends turned against me…”
  • “I don’t know why she has it out for me, but she makes it miserable at work. Let me tell you about …”

a woman holding a broken book to reinforce the analyzing and explaining defense mechanism of substance abuse

The Impact of Defense Mechanisms and What Can We Do?

Defense Mechanisms are the barrier that prevent the family and loved ones from “getting through to” the person with the SUD. Think of them as walls. They may be built of different materials, they may be different colors, some may have more structural integrity than others, but they all serve to define, guard, and separate. They are the construct of the dis-eased mind to keep any person “in their lane” which means away from the truth of the drinking or use and looking at the need to do something about it.

When I am treating an a person who has admitted that there is (or may be) a problem, we often spend some honest time looking at the content of their specific defense mechanisms. This can then inform a treatment plan, helping us identify other tools to recognize the thought process that leads to these narratives. In the case of situations in which the person uses to relieve stress, anxiety, or bolster confidence or performance, we can build a new toolbox for those needs – they are valid needs.

For friends and family members, it can be helpful to learn about these mechanisms and identify which ones might be present in their lives. Many of my clients who are friends/family often feel “crazy” or “confused” by what they see or suspect about the use and what the person with a SUD does and says. Looking at defense mechanisms as a known and identifiable pattern can help the friend or family member feel empowered and to minimize the sometimes crippling searching and fear that can develop as a result of living with or near to the pattern of defense mechanisms.

Understanding the progression of the disease of addiction through defense mechanisms is not meant to blame; the use of defense mechanisms develops in a brain that has been changed  neurostructurally and neurochemically. The use of defense mechanisms is how that changed brain fiercely protects what it perceives it needs; the alcohol, drug, or behavior.

Please contact me for more information, support, counseling, or care.


*Person First language is becoming the expected industry standard. And for the right reasons. The main reason is to acknowledge people as people first, before any other words are used, rather than referring to them in terms of a diagnosis or condition. This is true on the medical side of things as well. “A person with diabetes” is being used rather than “a diabetic.” Using Person-First Language in regard to SUD means someone is a “person with a substance use disorder,” rather than the stigmatizing term, “addict.” It relates directly to dignity and respect. Moving away from terms such as addict or alcoholic, we lead with the person, identify the person, and honor the person – first.


Chrysalis Counselling logo to help high functioning alcoholics and addicts with substance abuse issues

3 thoughts on “Defense Mechanism Series: Intellectualizing, Rationalizing, Cockiness, Justifying, Explaining, Analyzing”

  1. Chris says:

    I once heard that its not an addiction until you’re just using to battle the withdrawals. What about the user who isn’t in denial and recognizes they have an addiction and that it is destructive. But can’t see a solution in which they can afford to seek help and still maintain their occupation and bills. Of which they’re barely able to maintain currently.

    1. Joanne Ketch says:

      Hello, Chris and thanks for reading! Addiction is characterized by more than physical need (for example, the withdraw you mention). I am trying to understand the nature of your next question, and I think it is what about the individual who recognizes they have a problem but they can not afford treatment or the time off from work to seek treatment? That is a HUGE question. Treatment is a specialized medical delivery; it requires trained individuals and those professionals need to be paid. Access to quality medical care is a larger issue, political, and not within the focus of this blog. However, your hypothetical individual can access information and support and begin to build habits known to change neural structure and pattern in ways that support brain recovery.

  2. Hey Joanne, great blog posts, love this “denial” series!

    Chris, there are good free tools like 12 step programmes. Let me know if you need help tracking down which may be most appropriate for this person.

Comments are closed.

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