Addiction Defenses: Denial, Justification, Deception, Manipulation

Addiction's defenses

The protective defense of denial.

I wrote the complete series on people’s dynamics and defenses as they develop a substance use disorder (SUD) for the Sanford Behavioral Health Family Program. The primary defenses used as addiction progresses are denial, justification, deception, and manipulation.


Denial, Justification, Deception, Manipulation

For the family members of an individual developing an SUD, these defenses are known as “the crazy makers.” The “crazy makers” cause frustration, self-doubt, and downright exasperation! However, overusing defenses is a function of a developing brain disease. Knowing this helps family members and friends. They can develop a healthier, non-personalized approach to dealing with this complex chronic brain disease.


We are better prepared to see the difference between the person we love and the disease when we look at defenses in a factual light.  We can then engage and confront the disease process, not the person.  And we can disengage from our reactive behaviors toward these defenses.



Denial of Addiction – the First Stage of Acceptance

Denial is a “protective defense that keeps people from being overwhelmed by a current painful reality.”  All people use denial as part of any acceptance process. Acceptance begins with denial as the first stage of the process! People developing an SUD use denial to protect themselves from the painful reality. Family and friends also use denial to protect themselves from their loved one’s addiction. In her book Addiction in the Family, Virginia Kelly, PhD, addresses how the family organizes itself around “shame, control, and denial” because the person with an SUD becomes the focus of the family’s attention.


Before you read on about denial, I encourage readers to take a quick look at these two articles:

Do You Know How Active Addiction Feels?

Commitment to the Change Process


The Commitment to Change article discussed how a person must be ready, willing, and able to make a change. A person developing an addiction is likelier to be willing and able if they feel valued and understood in their circumstances. The sooner you stop denying, the sooner you can move on and get the help you deserve.



Denial as a defense

Notably, a person with an SUD feels self-conscious, defensive, confused, and conflicted. They are also questioning their ability to maintain control. The developing disease creates this emotional situation. Indeed, the chaos is an early warning sign that the primary substance is hijacking the brain’s reward center.


At this time, The disease process takes over the structure and function of inner brain communication. This reduces access to the cerebral cortex. And in turn, it reduces perception, awareness, memory, language, and consciousness. In that regard, the primary focus becomes procuring and using the substance. Life focuses on people, places, and things that satisfy the need. Interacting with non-using people, places, and things falls to the side.


A person developing a substance use disorder must use denial to cope with the significant changes of focus in their life. This is done to protect their developing physical reliance on the substance. Likewise, the brain directs them to deny any challenges to their harmful and risky lifestyle. Furthermore, they must protect themselves from negative feelings of guilt, shame, and embarrassment.


addiction defenses

A person developing a substance use disorder must use defenses to cope with their change of focus.


Minimizing and Redirecting Denial

An individual demonstrates denial by minimizing.  In other words, they report their substance use as much less than occurs. And the amount of time spent thinking about or planning for substance use is rarely discussed. This becomes a constant source of conflict and stress in family relationships. Someone with a developing SUD re-directs challenges to their behavior. They’ll talk about someone they believe “has a much worse problem than me.” Consequently, these tactics throw the challenger off course and end the conversation.


Family and friends know these tactics well. Also, when they challenge the denials, they experience self-doubt, guilt, frustration, and anger. Arguments occur, and often, it’s just the dumping of negative feelings. Everyone walks away feeling unheard and disrespected. More emotional distance appears. And there is no effective response to the developing brain disease or the negative impact on relationships. Resentment builds, and the problem continues to move forward.



How Do Loved Ones Deal with Denial?


  • Acknowledge your denial. Do the above-described situations sound like something you have experienced?  Share your responses to these situations, thoughts, and feelings with an understanding person.
  • Acknowledge and attempt to understand denial is a function of this brain disease.
  • And know that what starts as denial can move to acceptance on everyone’s part.
  • Start sharing your honest thoughts and feelings with your loved one using “I statements.”
  • Remove reactivity to statements of denial by your loved one. This means no more blaming, shaming, judgments, or demoralizing comments about your loved one’s views!
  • Refuse to argue about feelings.
  • Behave consistently with what you verbalize.


Remember this – all people use denial as part of any acceptance process. Acceptance begins with denial as the first stage of the process! The sooner one comes to terms with their problem, the sooner they can move on and get the help they deserve. At Sanford Behavioral Health, we follow a medical treatment model and treat addiction as a family disease.  We offer education and support to the family and friends of our clients in treatment.  We believe that family can positively influence their loved ones to seek treatment and experience success in recovery.


For the Entire Series on Addiction Defenses:

Justification of Addiction – Second Stage of Change

Deception as a Defense in Addiction – Third Stage of Change

Manipulation – The Fourth Defense of Addiction



Caroline (Carli) Parmelee-Noffsinger has 20 years clinical experience including: primary therapist and case manager for residential, IOP and outpatient therapy. Carli’s primary role at Sanford House is facilitating the Family Program. She is currently updating and revising the program design and content and hopes to improve upon an already successful approach to family intervention. In her free time, Carli spends time with her horse. She has been a horse lover and owner for most of her life and has facilitated equine therapy sessions. She says, “The back of a horse is good for the inside of a person.” You can reach Carli with questions about The Sanford House Family Program at