Understanding the Stages of Denial To Support A Loved One 

Posted by Ryan Jackson on Dec 28, 2017 10:00:00 AM


To be in denial is often blatantly obvious to loved ones or friends of an addict, but can also be not so clear to the person addicted to drugs or alcohol. There are three stages of denial, and it’s important to know what they are so that you can help your loved one acknowledge that a problem exists, take the first step to overcoming addiction, and stay motivated to a sober lifestyle long-term.

Empty bottles of alcohol, the source of an addicts addiction

Are you watching someone you love self-destruct to drugs or alcohol? Unfortunately, addiction can affect individuals of all ages and backgrounds. When someone you care about is in denial about having a problem that can lead to incurable sickness and even death, you feel entirely powerless, confused and lost.

What questions do you ask your loved one regarding addiction and willingness to go into a treatment program? Are you being met with rebuffs, argumentative statements and sarcasm? Perhaps you're unable to reach your family member because you don’t understand where he or she is in the denial process. Denial is a defense mechanism deeply rooted in your unconscious mind that protects you from having to face and deal with the pain that accompanies acceptance.

Think back to a time where you were in denial. What emotions did you feel when someone said that you were wrong about something you believed and knew to be correct? It’s likely that you shut down and tuned out as anger and resentment towards your accuser prevented you from rationally considering validity to the allegations.

Understand this fundamental point on how to reach your loved one in denial about addiction:

You should use different language, persuasion methods and motivational strategies based on the stage of denial that you’re loved one is in.

Read about the three stages now to understand where your friend or family member is at in the denial process. You will learn how to have discussions that promote openness and trust, which in turn, could result in a self-examination that leads to your loved one asking for help.


Stage One Denial

A woman experiencing stage one denial during drug and alcohol recovery.

Often a stressful time for well-meaning friends, at this stage you cannot reason with the person abusing drugs or alcohol. Your husband may acknowledge that he drinks too much, or your son may admit that heroin use is harmful, but they will also swear to the heavens with absolute certainty that they don’t have a disease that requires medical and psychological interventions.

At this point, the abuser is telling himself - “I’ve got this. If it gets too bad, I can stop using on my own.” The addict’s priority is to keep using, not think about tomorrow or the potentially deadly consequences of the habit. He hasn’t yet had a defining, or “aha moment” that awakens his eyes to the fact that drugs are controlling him.


Helping Your Loved One Overcome Addiction - Stage One Denial

If you want to help your loved one overcome stage one denial, remember these three words, “encourage internal acceptance.” You can’t force your nephew who’s dropped out of college due to a full-blown opiate addiction to admit to a risky and deadly lifestyle.

What you can do is provide education about what addiction is, and isn’t. Don’t try to reason with them or try to make them understand the gravity of their chemical dependency issue.


Don’t say: “Everyone in the family sees that you are addicted to painkillers. You’re high all day and are going to lose your job.”


Do say: “The family has noticed prescription bottles in your jacket pocket and dresser drawers. You slept all day and missed three days of work last week. Your boss said that if you miss another day, you’ll be fired.


Do you see the differences between these two statements? They both convey an urgent message, but the latter precisely explains previous events related to the addict’s self-destructive behavior.

Use descriptive language to make a compelling case that forces your loved one to remember prior actions that were risky, unhealthy or damaging to himself or family members.

Remember, when your loved one is in stage one denial, all you can do is plant a seed that hopefully leads to him or her taking a moment to reflect on what you said. Your goal should be to use language based on facts instead of emotion.

Even if your loved one minimizes your concerns, at the innermost level of his subconscious mind, he will begin to doubt his ability to control his drinking. The facts are sending a message that’s too loud to ignore.


Stage Two Denial

A man experiencing stage two denial during drug and alcohol recovery.

At this stage, your loved one has acknowledged that a problem exists and that intervention is necessary to overcome the addiction. Often, addicts agree to go into a detox program or might even stay for thirty days.

However, you can just sense that something is “off” or “missing” in their recovery. There’s a lack of commitment, motivation, and dedication to maintaining a sober lifestyle when treatment ends. Ambivalence and lack of enthusiasm are typical characteristics of someone in stage two denial.

His body is drug-free and in a treatment program, but his heart is only half-invested.

You’ll hear someone at this stage say about skipping group meetings to nap all day, “I’m here aren’t I!” and “I already know everything that the therapist is talking about.” If your loved one were fully invested in recovery, he wouldn’t miss a single meeting. Even if the same message has been taught a dozen times before, there is always something new and beneficial to learn.


Helping Your Loved One Overcome Stage Two Denial

There’s a fine line between enabling and tough love, but fervently try to find it. If you go along with your loved one who believes that they just need a little help here and there, you're turning a blind eye to the undeniable reality of addiction and recovery - addicts have to be fully invested, or it’s not going to work.

On the other hand, if you dismiss the fact that your loved one made a positive step in the direction of improved health, you also undermine the progress he made, or even worse, cause him to doubt himself.

Find the balance between loving too hard and not loving enough. You need to praise your family member for getting through the horrible withdrawal side-effects of opiate or alcohol cessation. Hold his hand, and comfort him during the vulnerable and uncertain period of early sobriety. Let there be no doubt in his mind that you're proud of him for taking the initial steps necessary towards living a better life.

Encouraging words are vitally important, but If you want to have discussions that motivate your loved one to make lasting changes, you need to have “and also” conversations. Without diminishing his or her initial efforts, you must also stand your ground for what you believe in - that ongoing professional support from the addiction community is a fundamental requirement to lifelong sobriety.

When your friend tells you, “I got what I needed from treatment” be resolute with your reply:

“You’ve come so far, and I love you! You have to keep working though, and you're also going to need recovery support and a disciplined mindset for the rest of your life."

Don’t be afraid to say what you mean. Tough conversations aren’t always easy, but you need to help your loved one understand that the work has just begun. Your loved one has just started a lifelong journey to sobriety, and the road can be tedious, lengthy and tumultuous at times.


Stage Three Denial

A woman experiencing stage three denial during drug and alcohol recovery.

Indifference has been replaced with enthusiasm as your friend finally comes to terms with the fact that addiction is a disease that has wrecked his life, but he will succumb to it no more. You may visit your friend in medical detox and notice that amidst the unpleasant hot flashes and unwelcomed trips to the bathroom, he wants to be there. Despite the nagging and uncontrollable urge to use his drug of choice, the abuser is unwavering in his belief that he's where he needs to be.

His body, mind, and spirit are centrally focused and fully immersed in the recovery process.

While your loved one is hopeful and optimistic about a sober future, this is still a delicate time that requires you to proceed with an understanding of early sobriety challenges. Someone in stage three denial is dedicated to recovery, but like the person in stage two denial also discredits the importance of ongoing resources, counseling and group support.

Stage three withdrawal has the resemblance of someone who’s finally getting his act together. “I know I’ve messed up my life and want to make changes!” are words commonly uttered at this stage.

His body is drug-free, and he’s fully invested in being sober. The catch? He doesn’t have a solid framework to build a healthy, drug-free life. He thinks he knows better than experts, wants to pick and choose recovery tools, and is naive to the stresses that lead to relapse due to inadequate recovery support.

Do you want to know one of the main attributes of people who have remained sober for long time periods that span decades?



It is essential, no matter how many months or years that you’ve been sober, to recognize that you’re going to need help along the way. Many recovering addicts feel no shame when they tell you, “I don’t have all the answers, and need to place my trust in someone or something that has successfully overcome the urge to relapse.”


Helping Your Loved One Overcome Stage 3 Denial

Unless your loved one acknowledges that recovery requires a complete lifestyle overhaul, he or she is in for a rude awakening after leaving the predictable environment of a treatment center.


Life’s hard. It’s harder for someone newly sober.

Your family member will be easily influenced by peers that dabble in recreational drug use and say, “It’s not an addiction if you just drink on the weekends.” AA, NA, SMART Recovery and addiction professionals all have the same common goal - to provide your loved one with the knowledge, skills, and confidence to handle the overwhelming urge to relapse, and make healthy choices for a lifetime.

Having a trustworthy and credible recovery model is essential because it will provide your family member with knowledge and guidance while holding him accountable for the choices he makes. He can choose the method that makes the most sense to him, but he needs structure, routines and daily support from other addicts, therapists, and mentors to avoid temptation, understand the disease, and develop insights that make him stronger and more resilient.

If your loved one tells you that they don’t have a recovery plan after discharge, doesn't like AA, or that they intend to go to meetings only once a week, ask more questions. Find out what he or she knows about AA, and why ongoing support is regarded as unimportant.


Don’t say:

“All addicts go to AA. You have to go if you want to stay sober.”


Do say:

  • “What is it about AA that you don’t like?”
  • “Do you know there are other recovery models like SMART Recovery that you might prefer?
  • “Why do you think you only need to go to meetings once a week?”


Do you see the difference in these two examples?

When you tell your loved one what he needs to do to stay sober, you presume to know what’s best for him. Granted, you do know that your family member is going to need more than one meeting a week to keep his sobriety and live a balanced life. However, be careful to choose words that attempt to gain insight into why your loved one believes and feels a certain way.

If you minimize his ideas and values, he’ll be even more resolute in his decision to do something in contrast to what you believe is a better option for his health and recovery.

The stages of denial are not cut and dry and can seem complicated. Remember to support your loved one while holding fast to your beliefs, boundaries, and knowledge that addiction is a disease that requires ongoing support for a lifetime. Hold his hand, but not too tightly, and encourage him to live the life of his dreams.


Next Steps

If you know someone who needs inpatient treatment for drugs or alcohol, call Landmark Recovery today to request more information. More than a treatment center - we use counseling, neurofeedback, and holistic therapies to help clients understand root causes of addiction. Licensed clinical therapists teach recovery skills and impart addiction knowledge that can be used for a lifetime to retain sobriety.

Tomorrow is too late. We’re here to help you now.


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Topics: Addiction

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