I am going to share 4 defense mechanisms that are frequently used by people in addiction to justify or substantiate their drug or alcohol use. I’m sure you have heard of some of these—you might have even heard of all of them. I hope to share some insights you may not have considered before.

Before we dig in let’s take a moment to talk about defense mechanisms in general. I think some people misunderstand one of the basic facts about defense mechanisms—generally speaking, they are unconscious. Their ego is using this mechanism to defend them and their behaviors from outside forces that are trying to make them stop. So, it is very important to remember that it is not a conscious choice the person is making to act the way they are acting. Trying to confront the person without acknowledging this is just going to lead to frustrations on both sides. Pointing out that you understand it is not a conscious choice will often help the person make better choices and eventually learn new, more effective coping skills.

So, here we go. The first defense mechanism is one I’m sure you all will know—Denial.

1. Denial—who has never been told you were in denial, raise you hands. Well, since I am still typing you know I didn’t raise my hands. It is a natural thing for us to be in denial when first confronted about attitudes and behaviors. So, pointing out that the person is in denial is appropriate but different methods produce different results. My experience is that a kinder, gentler method usually works better with denial. When you push against an opposing force it pushes back. The harder you push the harder they resist. In the end people get their feelings hurt and resentments begin to build and the result is more denial and less opportunities to try to chip away at it. When you argue with someone you help them develop more ways to defend themselves.

Denial will sneak in and try to convince a person it is OK to use, or convince them it is safe to drink socially, or to be around their old “buddies” who still drink, or… Well, you get the idea…the list can go on and on.

One more thing about denial. My favorite definition for denial is the acronym: Didn’t Even kNow I Already Lied. The person who is in denial is really lying to themselves when they are trying to convince you.

2. Rationalization—is the story we tell ourselves to help us control situations in our life. We rationalize situations in our daily life through self-talk. We tell ourselves that we had to do what we did or say what we said because, really, there wasn’t any other choice. We convince ourselves there is a good reason to be where we shouldn’t be with people we shouldn’t be around. Addicts and alcoholics get so used to doing this they don’t even realize it’s happening. Again, let me remind you that these defense mechanisms are usually unconscious. We are not lying to ourselves on purpose, we don’t even realize we are doing it.

One thing I have noticed over the years is the more intelligent a person is the more sophisticated their ability to rationalize. Again, my experience with people who are rationalizing, is the hard-nosed technique does not work as well since they are not consciously doing it. The harder you push the more they will rationalize. You have to play smarter not harder.

3. Minimization—is when we take the truth and distort it by taking away the details that will alert people around us that we are doing things we shouldn’t do. A perfect example of this is a husband who stops on the way home to pick up a 30-pack of beer and when asked by his wife what took so long responds with “I had to pick up a couple of things.” Of course, he doesn’t elaborate and tell the whole truth since he knows how she will react. Sometimes minimization is a conscious, deliberate action. Often, it is not conscious. We get so used to doing it that it rolls right off the tongue before we even realize we are doing it.

The people who are listening to us will begin to pick up on this pretty quick after being burned a few times. So, often they see through pretty quick and begin to confront. That’s when the minimization kicks in full speed, in addition to other techniques that we have up our sleeve.

4. Projection—is throwing the guilt onto someone or something else. People with addictions seem to be especially gifted with this most of the time. In fact, they are so convincing they start to really believe it themselves. This can take the form of something simple like making excuses for why they were late with the rent to trying to justifying criminal activities to feed my family when really the money is going to feed their addiction. Again, this is often unconscious, they just don’t see the truth because they would have trouble dealing with the truth.

One last thing about all these defense mechanisms. We use them, subconsciously, since the truth is too painful or difficult to face—that’s where the defense mechanisms come in, they allow us to avoid reality, sometimes effectively and sometimes not so well. Either way, it is our ego trying to protect us from what it perceives as danger. In the case of addiction, it is our ego trying to protect us from the painful absence of our drug of choice. When we understand how and why these defense mechanisms work we have a much better chance of successfully preventing relapse and having healthy, STABLE Recovery.

I would love to hear your comments and thoughts about these defense mechanisms.

Author's Bio: 

Tim Gray, MA, CADC

Tim has a masters degree in Mental Health Counseling and is a Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor. He has 20 years of experience as a therapist working with mental health, addictions, and co-occurring disorders. Gray is very passionate about living a balanced, healthy life in recovery. He knows the benefits of healthy recovery in life and personal struggles with additive behaviors.