Denial and Overconfidence – Counselor Magazine

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To often denial, as it is generally understood in the addiction field, is a blanket term that neglects the subtle differences observed in our client base. This short argument is intended to broaden the thinking on the concept of denial and its relationship to one small variable – that of overconfidence.

Premise: The human mind is an overconfidence machine.

For example:

  • 90% of drivers believe they are above average behind the wheel of a car. Given the number of accidents and near accidents that cannot be true.
  • 90% of entrepreneurs think their business will be a success. Most businesses fail
  • Golfers on the PGA estimate they will sink a putt 70% of the time, and only sink it 54% of the time.
  • Managers in the advertising industry give answers (trends, customer desires) that they thought were accurate 90% of the time, while their answers were wrong 61% of the time.

Premise: People not only overestimate what they know, they overestimate what they can know.

Premise: Over confidence generally has little connection to actual competence.

Premise: Incompetent people exaggerate their own abilities more grossly than their better performing peers. (Brooks, 2011)

Therefore: It is not unreasonable to assume that many of our clients may not be utilizing denial only to impede their recovery. Instead, the main “blocking” impediment might be overconfidence. Clients may well believe they have the ability to handle their drug problem given the propensity of humans to feel over confident about their abilities.

That conclusion conceivably means you, the provider, need to shift your assessment focus from the all encompassing idea that addiction clients are in denial, who actively turn away from the reality of a drug problem, to the possibly that your client believes they can manage the issue, which is overconfidence.

Denial and overconfidence are not quite the same thing. They are subtle differences. Denial rejects problems, turns its back on problems knowing all that while something is wrong. Confidence also acknowledges that a problem exists, but with it comes the belief that one can still handle or manage it. Denial does no such thing.

Insightful counselors will recognize those subtle differences and treat the variants differently.


Brooks, D. (2011). The social animal. New York: Random House

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  1. Ally August 13, 2012

    Great post. It is true that way too many people have the issue of overconfidence as well as denial. When someone is too overconfident, and then their wishful thinking or plans fail, they become depressed and feel helpless. Instead of being too overconfident, it is safer to look at both the good possible outcomes as well as the possible bad outcomes. If one does this, then disappointment is less likely.

  2. Thank you so much for this blog entry. In working with clients in my Dallas Counseling practice, I have noticed much of the overconfidence that you reference in your article. Some of this can happen after a period of abstinence, and clients start to overestimate their ability to moderate their usage.


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