The denial cycle has a special meaning for families coping with substance use. We all have denial in our lives. Denial is a way to help us to cope with overwhelming problems, thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. At times, denial is a healthy coping skill. For example, if you just found out your child was killed in an accident, denial of your feelings can help you to initially cope with overwhelming trauma. Once you are able to look at the facts and have emotional support, you can begin to let the feeling of horror, sadness, grief, abandonment, loss, and other feelings in. This is the body’s way of helping you to cope with such trauma. The same can be said when dealing with some kinds of disease. If you deny that you will succumb to a terminal or progressive disease, it may help your overcome it. But it doesn’t work this way with Substance Use Disorder. Here are 6 ways denial keeps the unhealthy cycle going from generation to generation.

What Is the Denial Cycle

There are plenty of reasons we want to deny that substances may be destroying our family. We just don’t want it to be so. We may also want to protect each other from the stigma that accompanies this chronic relapsing brain disease. Denying the symptoms of cancer doesn’t make it go away, and the same is true for SUDs. The unhealthy process of denial keeps us from allowing any feelings to bubble up. In the family of addiction, not only is the person suffering from substance use in denial about the disorder, but the other family members may also be in denial. Here are 6 areas where the cycle of denial in an unhealthy family system needs to be broken to become healthy now, and to prevent the cycle from being repeated in future generations.

  1. Honesty Denial keeps families from being honest with each other. If members deny that a loved one is suffering from SUD. This allows them to cope by ignoring the reality of the situation.
  2. Blame Denial makes family members believe only one person is the cause of the family problems. Even when family members think the loved one has an SUD, denial may keep them from seeing it as a family illness for it is only a problem for the substance user. This denial keeps them from accepting their own part and responsibility in an unhealthy family system.
  3. Normalcy Denial allows family members to try and maintain normalcy in the family. When family members believe that that some members just drink or drug a little too much now and then, there are no problems that need to be addressed.
  4. Secrecy Denial that keeps the secrets means that family members don’t have to tell others about a problem because there is no problem. With everything hidden, they don’t have to get help for the person with SUD or the rest of the family.
  5. Feelings Denial means family members don’t have to feel. Feelings can be difficult where substance use and denial are working together. If everyone is told to deny there is a problem, then no one has  to take action for their own behaviors, such as enabling the substance users. Also, it can be scary to feel some feelings such as abandonment, sadness, fear, hopelessness, shame, and guilt, especially when these feelings come about by the family problems. Denial allows family members to pretend these feelings don’t exist.
  6. Thoughts Denial makes it easier to cope with thoughts, feelings, and behaviors by putting all issues aside. If Dad is drinking and beating up Mom, then hiding in a bedroom and not talking about the abuse and not trusting anyone, as well as denying the fear and sadness, keeps a child from having to cope with adult issues.

Breaking The Denial Cycle

Dr. Claudia Black, one of the leading experts on addictions and codependency writes

There are 3 major rules within families with SUD: don’t talk, don’t trust, don’t feel.

Don’t talk means to use excuses instead of talking about and facing the problem. Not talking is a way to keep the dysfunction a secret from yourself as well as others. Don’t trust means that those outside the family aren’t told of the behaviors because they may try to force a change. It also means that children learn to keep secrets by not trusting anyone, including the parents, and not talking about what is really going on in the home. Don’t feel comes from not talking and trusting, for feelings become dangerous as the entire family refuses to allow their true feelings to come out. In order to break the cycle denial has to be the first thing to go. Awareness, Acceptance, and Action are the cure for denial.

Shifting The Family Balance

Denial in families with SUD makes everyone as as sick as the person(s) with SUD . When one member goes into recovery with counseling, 12-step meetings, and/or substance abuse treatment, the rest of the family must also be involved in their own recovery through these same processes. This will begin by talking, trusting others, and feeling.

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Carol Anderson
Carol Anderson, D.Min., ACSW, LMSW, is a licensed clinical social worker with over 25 years of experience in the fields of mental health, addictions, and co-occurring disorders. Her other specialties include grief and trauma, women’s issues, chronic pain management, holistic healing, GLBTQ concerns, and spirituality and transpersonal psychology. Dr. Anderson has been educated and trained in the fields of education, social work, and spirituality, and she holds a Doctor of Ministry degree (non-denominational/interfaith) specializing in spirituality.

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