Defense Mechanisms (Denial Series)

Denial, Lying, Silence, and Withdrawing 

First, a brief science summary: A brain that is hijacked by addiction seeks to protect the use of substances (or the behavioral – 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 addiction and possibly disrupting the use of the substance. In other words, an addicted brain 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 addict’s use. Defense Mechansims allow the addict to use. 

The addicted brain is physiologically a powerful and adversarial agent. The neural structures of the brain have developed to protect the addict’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 addict behaves based on the impulses and communication that the diseased brain gives them. Externally, in response to an active alcoholic or using addict, the family member can’t help but engage with the toxic and diseased process that plays out of the addicted brain’s manipulations.  

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 addict to continue to have an interactive relationship with their substance or behavior even if that means a reduced or compromised relationship, employment, finances, or health.  

We’ll start with Denial.  


The most obvious and most known is the 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 addict (and the addict’s substance protecting brain) 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 similar to the denial above, 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 by most liars, 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 addiction, of course.  

“Only a little.” 

“I thought about it but didn’t.” 

“I started but stopped myself.” 

Lying can be particularly attractive to the addicted 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 addict may then try: 


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




The addict’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 addict, 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 stressed relationship. It makes anxiety worse. The silence tactic leaves the awkward silence resting heavily on the speaking loved one or supervisor. It allows the addict to keep the power in the conversation. This is useful in that it allows the addict to protect their use or behavior. The concerned person in the addict’s life can’t progress the conversation and there is nowhere else to go. 

Another defense mechanism in this category of responses is withdrawing. Addicts who withdraw leave physically or emotionally. They give vague, ambiguous, non-responsive answers if they stay. 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. 

We’ll 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 addict access to their own health without making your own mental health contingent on their choices.  




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