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Being High-Functioning: Feeding the Alcoholic Denial

High-functioning alcoholics: drowning in the river of denial

Denial- it is powerful, dangerous, and one of the psychological symptoms of being alcoholic. For those who have not experienced true denial, they may think that it is simply "denying" that a problem exists. However, denial runs much deeper than that in the psyche of an alcoholic. It is the true belief that he or she is not alcoholic when all evidence points to otherwise.

Many may wonder how alcoholics who have lost their job, their housing and/or family could not realize that they are alcoholic. However, that is part of the "insanity" of alcoholism "repeating the same behavior over and over and expecting different results." High-functioning alcoholics (HFAs) have an extra layer of denial because they often have not had the tangible outside losses that lower functioning alcoholics experience. The fact that they are able to function and, in many cases excel, feeds their denial and leads them to truly believe that they are not alcoholic.

The following are ways in which denial may manifest in HFAs:
• believe that they are not alcoholics because their lives are still manageable and/or successful
• avoid recovery help because they are "not that bad"
• label their drinking as "a habit," "a problem," "a vice," or as "abuse"
• compare themselves to alcoholics who have had more wreckage in their lives to justify their drinking
• make excuses for drinking or feel entitled to drink because they have worked or studied hard (use alcohol as a reward)
• think that drinking expensive brands of alcohol or at sophisticated events implies they are not alcoholic
• experience recurrent thoughts that because they have not "lost everything," they have not hit bottom and are not alcoholic
• have a "Teflon brain" that forgets the negative consequences of their drinking and only remembers the positive aspects

"For HFAs, the level of their own denial is heightened by the denial of society, their loved ones and colleagues. One HFA believes that societal ignorance and denial about alcoholism filters down to the individuals with alcohol-use disorders, preventing them from getting treatment. He stated that ‘we tend to think that if the outside facade is what society defines as success, then I surely couldn't have any inside problems.'"(

HFAs personally experience strong and lasting denial, but their loved ones and social set are not immune to this phenomenon. Many HFAs report their families were in denial of their alcoholism which is referred to as "secondary denial" or being aware that someone is alcoholic but struggling to accept it or thinking that his or her alcoholism isn't that serious. Other HFAs reported that their family members may be aware of their alcoholism. Specifically, one male HFA observed that his wife knew he was an alcoholic but still believed that he was "not that bad of an alcoholic," because he was still functioning. Secondary denial often prevents loved ones from addressing this issue with HFAs and therefore preventing them from getting treatment.

In my own personal experience, after hitting an emotional bottom there was 90% of my rational self that recognized I was alcoholic and 10% that did not. Only 10% was my denial, yet it had more influence over my thinking than the 90%. It was frightening to intellectually acknowledge that I was alcoholic, while at the same time to have the alcoholic part of my mind telling me "you haven't lost it all- maybe you are not alcoholic," "you could drink for a few more years and get away with it," and "you have been too successful to be an alcoholic." Over time and through the recovery process I have learned that those thoughts are the disease of alcoholism talking. Today, when those denial thoughts crop up, I use them as reminders that even though I have always been high functioning, I really am an alcoholic.

More information on this subject is available in my new book Understanding the High-Functioning Alcoholic: Professional Views and Personal Insights (

More from Sarah A. Benton LMHC, LPC, LCPC, AADC
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