Dealing with Denial

by Kay Shepard, LMHC

Denial — a major symptom of food and other addictions — is a psychological mechanism humans use to protect themselves from fear by blocking conscious awareness of truth. Denial by food addicts consists of blocking awareness of excessive and inappropriate use of food and resulting harmful consequences.

Denial is a potentially fatal aspect of food addiction because it impairs judgment and results in self-delusion, locking the addict into a destructive pattern. Denial may permit medical advice of “Stop overeating or you will die!” to be ignored.

Recently I heard a food addict say with a laugh, “Why live if I can’t eat what I want?” Addiction, through the mechanism of denial, creates a value system in which the use of the substances supersedes the will to live.

Denial Has Many Faces

Denial is the term used for a wide variety of psychological defenses food addicts unwittingly set up to protect themselves from the realization they are food-addicted. All defensive maneuvers distort reality.

Simple Denial — maintaining that something true is not true. This dishonesty is a form of denial, although the addict may not be aware of it. “Who ate the bag of cookies?” “I don’t know!” Of course, I knew I ate them but I actually believed my own lies.

Minimizing — admitting the problem in such a way that it appears to be insignificant. “All I need is a good diet program and everything will be all right.”

Blaming — denying responsibility for behavior and projecting responsibility onto someone or something else. The behavior is not denied, but its cause is identified as an external person, place, or thing. “You would overeat too if you had a husband (children, mother, job) like mine!”

Rationalizing — making alibis and excuses for behavior. Rationalizing and justifying are attempts to create a logical reason for illogical behavior. “I was in so much pain, naturally I ate for comfort.” Since food addicts eat to feel better and that always makes them feel worse, this rationalization doesn’t hold water.

Other defense mechanisms include judging, analyzing, explaining, quibbling, debating, arguing, questioning, evading, defiance, attacking, aggression, withdrawing, silence, verbalizing, shouting, joking, and agreeing. All of these defenses protect the disease process and defend against healthy recovery.

The Beginning of Recovery

When an addict moves into compliance, he or she agrees to follow a suggested path with the hope life will improve. This demonstrates a show of trust in sponsors, therapists, and recovering people met in meetings. This trust leads to surrender, and surrender leads to acceptance. Recovery begins with confrontation and breakdown of the denial system.