Addicts are often extremely out of touch with the impact of their behavior on themselves, their relationships, and their loved ones. To this end, they will routinely ignore or devalue warning signs that seem obvious to any casual observer – damaged relationships, reprimands at work or in school, diminished self-esteem, depression, anxiety, financial problems, legal woes, loss of interest in previously enjoyable activities, emotional isolation, etc. Stated simply, they are unable to see (or they refuse to see) the destructive effects of their behavior.
This is known as denial. Denial tends to build slowly, almost imperceptibly, over time through a series of small, seemingly innocuous lies. Typically, each of these lies must be supported by still more lies. Eventually, addicts create an alternate reality in which their behaviors seem utterly reasonable (to them). The rest of the world can easily see through their smokescreen, but they either cannot or will not. And they will maintain that smokescreen until they’re hit with a major crisis. At times, they will continue with their denial even after a major crisis.
There are numerous ‘flavors’ of denial. With infidelity and sex addiction, most common are as follows:
- My partner never wants to try anything new in bed. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be looking for satisfaction elsewhere.
- I can’t help it if other people come on to me.
- My spouse has gained a lot of weight since we got married, and that’s unattractive to me.
- I earn all the money for my family and nobody appreciates that, so I get high and look at porn for a few hours here and there as my reward.
- I’m lonely and bored, and that’s just not the way that life is supposed to be.
- I deserve to have some fun.
- If I was in a relationship, I’d be having sex all the time, so why can’t I have sex all the time when I’m single?
- I need to get high and get a massage to reduce my tension and anxiety.
- Everybody else can look at porn, so why can’t I?
- I’ll only do this one more time.
- What my partner doesn’t know can’t hurt him/her.
- I only use drugs and cheat on my partner when I’m away on business.
- I see prostitutes, but I’m nice to them. I pay them what they want and even give them a little extra.
- Nobody will find out, so what I’m doing is not a big deal.
- Everybody plays around with hookup apps. That’s just life in the modern world.
- I was abused as a kid, so this behavior is expected.
- Everybody wants so much from me. I just feel overwhelmed and at the mercy of everyone in my life. Sex is my only relief.
- I’ve got a lot of medical issues. Looking at porn gives me some relief from my physical pain and worry.
In addiction treatment settings, clients are sometimes asked to write down all the reasons their behavior is OK or not their fault. In other words, they are asked to list the lies that comprise their denial. Then they are asked to read these thoughts out loud, in front of others. Sometimes one excuse, by itself, will seem reasonable. Maybe two or three excuses strung together will still sound at least slightly plausible. But when the list of justifications goes on and on, eventually it begins to sound crazy – even to the addict. This process alone is sometimes enough to break through an addict’s denial.
Ultimately, however, the most effective tool for breaking through denial is addiction-focused group therapy, like what we offer in our Seeking Integrity Treatment Programs. The group format is ideal for confronting rationalizations, justifications, and other forms of denial. As an individual’s self-deceit surfaces, other clients are able to point out the flaws. These group-level confrontations are powerful not only for the individual being confronted but for the group members doing the confronting. Through such interactions, everyone present can see that denial is built on a foundation of small, seemingly innocuous lies that somehow combine to make irrational behavior seem rational.