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11 Ways to Help a Loved One in Denial

5. Be sincere.

If you speak from your heart, you can’t really go wrong. What is done in love isn’t always interpreted with love, but you can live in peace knowing that you spoke the truth and you acted in love. In twelve-step support programs, step nine involves making amends to people we have harmed in the past. If we choose to express our regrets and say we are sorry, we are advised to concentrate on our half: on our intention, the reason we are doing it, and keeping it there — to not attach expectation of any kind. If we go in thinking that we are going to rectify an estranged relationship, we are setting ourselves up for disappointment.

The same philosophy holds for a confrontation. If the intention of our confrontation is to make our friend get help for her disorder, we may very well come away shattered. However, if we voice our concern simply as an act of love, we will be at peace knowing we have spoken the truth and tried, even if she continues to deny the problem.

6. Say “I.”

As a kid of an alcoholic who was sent to twelve-step meetings for families of alcoholics before I hit high school, I learned early on to begin all my sentences with “I.” If you begin a sentence with “You,” you are usually making some unfair, or maybe even incorrect assumptions. But if you stay with “I,” you have a much better case because you and you alone control your feelings. Therefore, try saying, “I feel sad when I see you …” instead of “You are making a mess of your life.” Even though all you’ve done is stuck in “I” in the sentence, you come across a tad less judgmental and a bit more empathetic.

Words need to be chosen carefully in these situations. For that reason, I compiled two lists awhile back: “10 things you SHOULD say to a depressed person,” and “10 things you should NOT say to a depressed person.” Some of these would definitely work on a friend or relative swimming in denial. They are conversation starters or gentle introductions to the big elephant conversation, even if you want to skip over the elephant for now.

7. Ask questions.

In addition to using “I” statements, you can ask questions. This allows the person to arrive at her own conclusion on her own schedule. Planting the seed with some gentle inquiries like, “Do you think you might be depressed?” is often more powerful than a statement like “I think you’re depressed,” because you have left her with a question that she can answer in her own time. I recently asked an older, wiser friend what to do about a friend of mine who, I fear, is heading in a dangerous direction. “Ask her a few questions,” he advised me. “Plant the seeds for whenever she is ready to deal with it.”

8. Provide some resources.

If you do decide to confront your loved one, or try to plant the seed, you might want to be ready with some resources she can use should she ever wake up to her problem. Fortunately for me, I’ve been to most psychiatrists in Annapolis, so I know which ones are the best. I’m also on a first-name basis with most of the therapists. I have a list of names, support groups, and reading material to hand to a person suffering from depression, which gets them from point A to point B, should they ever choose to go to B.

When a high school teacher confronted me about my alcohol abuse, she gave me the number of a friend of hers that attended twelve-step support groups. She was prepared to help me make the first leap to recovery. I would not have called a hotline asking for the closest meeting. That would have been too scary. By providing some resources, you are helping your loved one make that first step.

9. Leave the door open.

After asking questions, using “I” statements, and providing resources, the only thing left is to leave the door open. “I’m here if you need me” is all you really have to say. And that goes a long way. Trust me. Sometimes it has taken me years to get to a place that I can walk through the door. No one ever forgets an open door, even if she choose not to walk through it.

10. Set boundaries.

To protect yourself, be sure to set your own boundaries. For example, if your best friend is drinking too much and you think she has a problem, but she refuses to go there, you might want to cancel girls’ night – because you have had enough of the obnoxious behavior. Or you may want to always drive separately because you don’t want to wait around until she is ready to go, and you don’t like being the chauffeur everywhere. Or you might pull the plug on those fun sleepovers she used to plan with your kids. Unfortunately our human powers are only good on ourselves.

11. Take care of you.

You can’t force recovery on your loved one but you CAN keep yourself well and sane. Be sure to get the help you need in dealing with her behavior, because she can’t begin to dig herself out of the hole, if you fall in with her. Seek support for yourself so that you can stay resilient amidst the inconsistency and confusion that mood disorders and addiction bring into a home.

11 Ways to Help a Loved One in Denial

Therese J. Borchard

Therese J. Borchard is a mental health writer and advocate. She is the founder of the online depression communities Project Hope & Beyond and Group Beyond Blue, and is the author of Beyond Blue: Surviving Depression & Anxiety and Making the Most of Bad Genes and The Pocket Therapist. You can reach her at or on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or LinkedIn.

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APA Reference
Borchard, T. (2018). 11 Ways to Help a Loved One in Denial. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 23, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 23 Oct 2011)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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