Recognizing Denial: How to Differentiate the Addict Brain from the Healthy Brain


“I don’t have a problem.”

“It’s not a big deal.”

“It doesn’t hurt anyone, especially if they don’t find out.”

“I deserve a break.”

These are classic statements of denial: distortions of truth that justify your decisions or compulsive behaviors and offer self-protection.  They often pop into your head automatically and outside of conscious awareness.  Even though they are distorted, they often feel true or carry some grain of truth, so it can be hard to discern whether they are true or false. 

How does denial keep you in addiction?

Denial keeps you stuck in addictive behaviors as you to turn a blind eye to how your actions impact you and others around you.  For sex and love addicts, denial functions as a way for your brain to justify your addictive actions and protect yourself from the guilt or shame you may feel for your behaviors.

Shame is a hallmark of addiction, and denial is a way for your mind to psychologically protect yourself against that shame.  Typically, addiction stems from past experiences of trauma, which communicate shame-based beliefs about your identity.  These shame messages are  uncomfortable and often painful, with words such as “I’m a loser,” “I’m a failure,” “I’m unlovable,” or “I’m worthless.”  Denial serves as a way of blocking these negative thoughts.

Yet while your mind is using denial to try to protect you from these harsh words, the denial statements inevitably lead back to your addictive behavior. The more times you engage in addictive behavior, the more your shame messages are reinforced, and you have to cover over the shame with denial again.  Denial may prevent you from being found out by yourself or others, but it also prevents you from getting the help that you need.

The Addict Brain

I like to think of these denial statements as the addict brain at work inside you.  There is a part of you, which we’ll call the “addict self,” that wants to remain in your addiction because of the benefits addictive behavior gives you, like a false sense of intimacy.  This addict self will tell you that you need to act out in your addiction and will therefore justify those behaviors.  It will repeatedly tell you that you don’t have a problem and that it’s not a big deal.

But when the addict brain is running the show, you are being controlled by your addiction rather than by your true self.  Getting in touch with your healthy brain requires a focused process.  Patrick Carnes talks about grabbing your frontal lobe (the part of your brain that facilitates impulse control and healthy decision-making) with reality and not letting it go as part of addiction recovery. 

Common Areas of Denial

Both Patrick Carnes in Facing the Shadow* and Rob Weiss in Sex Addiction 101* talk about the most common areas of denial.  Here are a few you may have experienced in your addiction.

  • Minimizing: claiming that the addiction has less impact than it truly does. “It’s not that big of a deal.”  “I can stop anytime I want.” “It’s not hurting anyone.”

  • Rationalizing: coming up with reasons why the addictive behaviors are okay or justifiable. “Everyone has needs.”  “I’m just expressing myself sexually.”

  • Comparing yourself to others. “I’m not as bad as he/she is.”  “I can’t be an addict because I haven’t done (fill in the blank).”

  • Blame-shifting: blaming others for why you need to engage in your addiction. “I wouldn’t have to watch porn if my partner were more sexual.”  “I need a release after my boss/my spouse gets on my case.”

  • Victim mentality: justifying your behaviors with feelings of helplessness or hopelessness. “I’m a lost cause.”  “I’m never going to get over my past sexual abuse.”  “When will my needs get taken care of?”

  • Ignoring key details: not admitting the worst parts of your behavior to yourself or others.

  • Living a double life: compartmentalizing the parts of you that are addicted as separate and not affecting your life. “Watching porn doesn’t affect my marriage.”  “My sexual behaviors don’t impact my day to day life.”

  • Entitlement: feelings of deserving a break or reward. “I deserve this.”  “I’ve had a tough day at work and I need this to unwind.”  “I’ve made it a week without looking at porn, so I can watch some as a reward.”

Do any of these phrases sound familiar to you?  What are your go-tos?

How to Deal with Denial

When you’re in a space where you are clear-headed and not in addict brain, write a list of your common denial statements.  Add to this list as you walk through recovery and listen to your addict brain.  Each time you are drawn toward your addictive behaviors, use that as an opportunity to hear what the addict brain is telling you.

Once you’ve compiled this list of addict thinking, write down affirmations or words of truth that respond to these distortions.  Use your healthy brain to respond to the addict.  Your 12 Step group or sponsor can help you in this process.  Sometimes the words of others jar you out of your own experience and remind you of truth.  Write down quotations from recovery literature or books that remind you of both the seriousness of your addiction and the hope you have in recovery.  Create a toolkit of positive words to come back to and read when denial is echoing in your brain.

When you’re noticing automatic thoughts of denial popping up, pause.  Review your list of healthy coping statements, write in your journal, call a support individual, or read recovery literature.  Ask yourself what you truly need and see if you can offer that to yourself in the moment.

Overcoming these phrases of denial is a major step in your recovery journey.  As you grow in awareness of your “addict thinking,” you can begin to rewrite your narrative with a recovery mindset and find freedom from addictive patterns.


Are you struggling with addict thinking?  Do you have a hard time quieting those words in your mind? Have you felt stuck in your addictive behaviors without hope of change?  At Restored Hope, I seek to help you achieve freedom from your addictive patterns, replacing them with a wholehearted and fulfilling life.  Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or email me today to schedule your first appointment.

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