Defense Mechanisms (Denial Series)

a picture of a dictionary open to the word lying to reinforce that persons with a substance use issue lie to cover their behavior

What Is Addiction, Anyway?

First, a brief science summary: A brain that is hijacked by substance use disorder (SUD) seeks to protect the use of substances (or the behavior – process addiction). A person who suffers with this disease will develop defense mechanisms – what most people call “denial” – in order to keep people away from identifying the truth of the severity of the SUD and possibly disrupting the use of the substance.

In other words, a brain with a SUD by nature wants more of the substance or experience (in the case of behavioral addiction). That addicted brain will literally seek ways to protect the supply. Professionals have labeled this protection Defense Mechanisms. Defense mechanisms are the brain’s way of establishing psychological safety and space from intervention into the persons use of alcohol, drugs, or behavior. Defense Mechanisms allow the person to use.

The  brain with an unhealed SUD is a physiologically a powerful and adversarial agent. The neural structures of the brain have developed to protect the person’s use. The neural transmitters (the feeling chemicals that communicate emotion) rally to ensure their access to the substance or behavior that the re-structured brain demands. The person behaves based on the impulses and communication that the diseased brain gives them. Externally, in response to an someone with an active SUD, the family member can’t help but engage with the toxic and diseased process that plays out of the SUD brain’s manipulations.

Defense Mechanism Series

I am writing a series discussing specific defense mechanisms with the hope that my readers can identify and, if needed, admit them and move forward into recovery. Together, we’ll work through a series of these defense mechanisms in order to better identify, understand, and see them for their truth; they serve to allow the person with an SUD to continue to have an interactive relationship with their substance or behavior even if that means a reduced or compromised relationships, employment, finances, or health.

I am breaking the series down by categories. The first group includes Denial, Lying, Silence, and Withdrawing.

We’ll start with Denial.


The most obvious and most known defense mechanism is simple denying. A person using this mechanism simply denies that a problem exists.

  • “I don’t have a problem.”
  • “I don’t do that.”
  • “I’m not an alcoholic (addict, problem gambler).” *

Flat out denial is not a discussion ender. It’s a discussion non-starter. You accuse; they deny. There is nothing more. Should you try to address the issue with your understanding of the facts (which are likely accurate), they will repeat the same denial verbatim or in similar words. The discussion itself goes nowhere but the emotion, and frustration may escalate. The concerned family member feels they are being gaslighted and the person with the SUD feels threatened. This can go several directions. It can simply end at this point (this time, to be repeated at another interaction) or it can escalate.


Sometimes, the simple denial moves into another defense mechanism: Lying.

Lying is like the denial, but more active and intentional. Whereas denial is a flat out “nope, not me” in response to accusations, lying includes more data and more engagement. Lying can include adding information (a tactic used in many lies, by the way), or leaving out important information.

One very common specific lie for alcoholics is so common, it’s become a “joke” in recovery circles:

  • “I only had 2.”
  • That meme has several versions depending on the SUD, of course.
  • “Only a little.”
  • “I thought about it but didn’t.”
  • “I started but stopped myself.”


a picture of a dictionary open to the word lying to reinforce that persons with a substance use issue lie to cover their behavior

Lying can be particularly attractive to the SUD brain because it often “gives” a little to the accuser. It admits something; hopefully just enough for the accuser to back off and drop it. As you can see by the commonly used examples above, our hypothetical but realistic addict is admitting something, but not fully. The hope is that it is sufficient to cover the whole of the issue and the matter can be dropped. 

If denial or lying don’t seem to create enough emotional of psychological distance for the addict, the person with a SUD may then try: 


The family member or friend expresses concern or accusation. The accused: 


(crickets) cricket on a flower to reinforce how the addict doesn't say anything when confronted with concerns about their substance abuse


The person with a SUD’s boss, spouse, kids, concerned family may say something; often something with love and concern. The loving concern may have been well crafted and agonized over. The person with a SUD, instead of the lying and denial discussed above may say absolutely nothing. Silence in response to data leaves a gapping and awful hole in the moment. It stresses the already strained relationship. It makes anxiety worse. The silence tactic leaves the awkward silence resting heavily on the speaking loved one or supervisor. It allows the person with a SUD to keep the power in the conversation. This is useful in that it allows the them to protect their use or behavior. The concerned person in the person with a SUD’s life can’t progress the conversation and there is nowhere else to go. 


Another defense mechanism in this category of responses is withdrawing. An accused person who withdraw leave physically or emotionally.  If they don’t physically withdraw, they psychologically do by giving vague, ambiguous, non-responsive answers. If they don’t physically stay, they simply exit stage right. Often, that exit is a direct path to using, drinking, engaging with spending, sex, etc. 

a person walking away from the camera to support the idea that an addict will avoid looking at their problem

We explore 3 additional defense mechanisms in the next blog post in the series. 

In the meantime, I encourage family members and other concerned loved ones to secure the best self-care they can access. If you are one of these persons, the only power you have is your own care. Learn about healthy boundaries, try to make decisions that further your growth and happiness while allowing the person with the SUD access to their own health without making your own mental health contingent on their choices.  Contact me, I can help you with that.


*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.

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(281) 740-7563

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