The 4 Types of Denial, a Characteristic of Codependency

By Darlene Lancer

When it comes to addiction and codependency, denial isn’t healthy; in fact, it can be dangerous. By not facing the problem, you deprive yourself of learning constructive measures that can improve and potentially save your life and those of others. Codependents have multiple types of denial. Four are explored here.

Type 1: Denying someone’s behavior

The first type of denial is denying that someone in your life has an addiction or that his or her behavior is causing a problem or is negatively affecting you. It’s common with codependents because

  • You may have grown up with addiction or the problem behavior in your family, so it feels familiar and normal.

  • Addicts and abusers don’t like to take responsibility for their behavior. They deny it and blame others who are willing to accept this as the truth.

  • Growing up in dysfunctional families, you learn to not trust your ­perceptions and what you know.

  • Acknowledging the truth would cause feelings of shame because of the stigma attached to addiction and abuse.

  • Low self‐esteem lowers your expectations of being treated well.

  • You lack information about the signs of addiction and abuse.

Because denial keeps you from acknowledging the truth, you won’t have to confront someone’s upsetting behavior or addiction, experience the pain, or take action. If you love an addict and can pretend that the dangers facing him or her don’t exist, even for a little while, you can function better.

You don’t have to think about the repercussions of his or her addiction and behavior, such as a fatal drug overdose or auto accident, bankruptcy due to gambling losses, cirrhosis of the liver, or the myriad of other problems.

Denial doesn’t mean that you’re not bothered by their behavior. It means you don’t recognize it for what it is, such as abuse, infidelity, an addiction, or other issue. The fleeting possibility may cross your mind, but you don’t think about it. You may dismiss it as unimportant, or minimize, justify, or excuse it with explanations and rationalizations.

This is normal when you don’t want to admit that someone you love has a serious mental or behavioral problem, but the troubles mount up, and one day you find you’re making excuses for behavior you never thought you’d tolerate. That’s what happens with denial. Things get worse.

Type 2: Denying your codependency

Generally, if confronted, codependents deny their codependency. This is type 2. Codependents believe that they have no choices about their ­situation and/or blame others. They deny their own disease to avoid deeper pain.

Another reason that it may be difficult for you to admit you have a problem and seek help is because you’re not used to looking at yourself. Focusing on others protects you from facing your pain and taking responsibility for your own happiness. It keeps you stuck pursuing the fruitless goal of trying to change others or seeking the someone to make you happy, based on the false premise that your happiness lies in others. Blaming others or feeling superior helps you avoid self‐examination, as shown in the following examples.

Some people, including healthcare professionals, know a lot about codependency, but only see it as applying to others. Their denial keeps them from looking at themselves. There are also those who admit their codependency, yet think they don’t need help.

They’ve figured out their problems in their mind and believe they can manage on their own or by reading and talking to friends. They underestimate their codependency and its impact on their lives and don’t get help — often because of the internalized shame — in the same way that shame keeps drug addicts from getting treatment.

Type 3: “Don’t ask me how I feel”

Codependents are usually good at knowing what other people feel and spend a lot of time worrying about them, often with resentment, but they aren’t much aware of their feelings, other than worry and/or sometimes resentment. Denial of feelings is type 3.

When people are obsessing about their addiction — whether it’s to a person, food, sex, work, or a drug — it’s usually a distraction from what they’re really feeling. If you ask them how they’re feeling, they say “I’m fine,” or if you ask what they’re feeling, they say “Nothing.”

They understand physical pain but not emotional pain, because they’re in denial of their true feelings, which would be upsetting to experience. Growing up, they never learned to identify their feelings or felt safe expressing them, especially if they had no one to comfort them. Instead, they felt ashamed and buried and repressed their feelings.

Feelings, including painful ones, serve a purpose. They help you recognize your needs and adapt to the environment. Awareness of feelings is vital to healthy interactions with others:

  • Fear tells you to avoid danger, including people who may harm you emotionally.

  • Anger tells you that action is required to right a wrong or to make changes.

  • Healthy guilt helps you act congruently with your values.

  • Sadness helps you let go and encourages empathy and human connection.

  • Shame helps you fit into society and keeps you from harming others.

  • Loneliness motivates you to reach out to others.

When you deny or repress feelings, you can get stuck. The feeling never gets released and stays in your unconscious — sometimes for years. Pain accumulates, and more pain requires more denial. An unintended consequence of denying painful feelings is that you become depressed or numb to joy, gratitude, and love, too.

Energy that can be used creatively and constructively gets channeled into holding down feelings, like trying to keep the lid on a pressure cooker. Denial of raw emotion permits it to fester as an obsession, addiction, depressed mood, or resentment. Allowing feelings to flow releases the pent‐up tension.

Some codependents use resentment to camouflage anger that’s underneath. Often, they resent someone with whom they’ve not set good ­boundaries. Growing up it may not have been safe to say no or express anger. As adults, they might minimize or rationalize it and even blame themselves to deny their anger and to preserve the relationship with the other person. Allowing the anger releases the resentment, and talking about it can help to repair the relationship.

Some people act out their repressed feelings with behavior that releases emotional tension without experiencing the feeling. Often codependents who deny their feelings marry someone who has volatile emotions, allowing them to experience feelings vicariously.

When you deny your feelings, it keeps you from responding appropriately and creates more problems. In some cases, you can identify the feeling but have denied its buried, repressed meaning. When this happens, you can still remain fixed in a cycle of re‐experiencing the feeling and repeating the associated behavior, because the deeper pain isn’t resolved.

Type 4: “My needs don’t matter”

Codependents are very good at anticipating and filling the needs of others, yet they deny or minimize their own needs. This is type 4. At the other extreme are those who demand and expect everyone else to meet their needs. Some codependents were neglected, and basic physical needs weren’t met. Others who were abused may never have experienced safety in a relationship and don’t expect it as a normal prerequisite.

Many codependents had their material needs met and assume that’s all they require. But humans have many needs. Recognizing a need that was shamed or never filled is like asking a blind person to describe color.

Good parents make it safe for children to ask for what they want. Then as adults, they’re able to identify their needs, function on their own, and express their needs. If key needs were shamed or ignored in your childhood, you grow up doing the same to yourself and shut down feelings associated with those needs. Why feel a need if you don’t expect it to be filled? It’s less painful to deny it entirely.

This is why many codependents learn to be self‐sufficient and, in particular, to deny emotional needs. Expressing needs in the context of a relationship requires trust, so you’d feel vulnerable requesting needs be met if they require the participation of another person. You might deny and/or feel ashamed of your needs for support, nurturance, and the most human of all — the need for love.

Even if you know that you were loved, if you never received nurturing or had your feelings respected, you may attempt to fill this void with an addiction. Addictive relationships serve as a substitute for real connection. Some people are caretakers who hope to receive love in return but are unable to be vulnerable about their own feelings, which is necessary to maintain an intimate relationship.

Many who don’t recognize their needs for support and comfort isolate — especially when they’re hurting. Even with awareness of their needs, asking someone to meet them can feel humiliating.