Denial Psychology: Why People Use Denial as a Defense Mechanism

Denial, a feature of the human experience that is common to everyone, has a significant impact on how we deal with difficulties in life. Denial is a deeply ingrained, unconscious defense mechanism in the human psyche. When confronted with overwhelming circumstances, people instinctively reject their perception of the situation or deny its existence. While staying in denial might provide temporary respite from the distressing emotions of reality, if not dealt with, it can come back to bite us, causing greater harm in the long run.

Key takeaways:

In this article, we will explore the concept of denial, provide examples of real-life scenarios, and explain the process of moving from denial to acceptance, developing healthier coping mechanisms, and leading a more fulfilling life.

What is denial?

Life will throw up difficult challenges, such as trauma, grief, addiction, or abuse, to name but a few. These issues can engender such painful emotions that we will attempt to avoid them at all costs. Obviously, the best course of action is to face them head-on, seek solutions, and deal with sadness or anger. However, for a lot of people, if they were to experience the full force of these emotions, it could lead to a complete breakdown. This is where denial comes into play.

Denial is a protective mechanism that we use to defend against overwhelming or distressing feelings. It serves as a psychological shield that helps us to avoid, ignore, or minimize realities that might overwhelm us. It is an unconscious process which means the person will likely not be aware that they are experiencing it. However, while denial can offer short-term relief, it often comes at the cost of long-term consequences and can hinder personal growth and problem-solving.

Three examples of denial in real-life scenarios

In life, denial can take on various forms and operate in numerous situations, here are three examples of how it can manifest in different ways:

  1. Repressed childhood trauma. In this scenario, people who have experienced significant childhood trauma may use denial as a defense mechanism to bury distressing memories and emotions associated with the trauma. They convince themselves that the traumatic events never happened or that they were not as severe as they truly were. This denial can remain in place for years until a triggering event or therapy brings those repressed memories and emotions to the surface, often resulting in emotional turmoil and the need for therapeutic intervention.
  2. Alcoholism and addiction. The denial process of an addict typically unfolds in stages. Initially, they may deny having a problem with substances altogether. As consequences accumulate, they move to minimization, downplaying the severity of their addiction. Rationalization follows as they create justifications for their behavior. Finally, the consequences mount up or they hit "rock bottom" and this can trigger reality and the potential for recovery. Sadly, some people with addictions never fully accept the reality and go on with their addiction with fatal consequences.
  3. Grieving. When someone experiences a significant loss, like the death of a loved one, they may use denial to cope with the overwhelming grief. They convince themselves that the loss is not real or that the departed person will somehow return. However, with time and support, most people gradually transition from denial to acceptance as part of the natural grieving process.

Common denial statements

Let's explore how denial manifests in everyday life through ordinary language and statements. Here are typical expressions people use when they are in denial:

Type of denialStatements
Addiction
  • "I can quit anytime I want, I just don't want to right now."
  • "I don't have a problem; I can control it."
  • "I don't drink as much as my friends, so it's not a big deal."
Financial
  • "I'll figure out my finances later; I have plenty of time."
  • "I can't cut back on my spending — I deserve these things."
  • "It will all work out. I just need another loan to get me out of this one."
Anorexia
  • "I'll stop losing weight once I reach my goal, and then I'll eat normally."
  • "I feel fat, so there is no way I am anorexic."
  • "I don't need help. I am actually overweight."
Depression
  • "I don't want to talk about it, feelings are for the weak."
  • "I don't want to burden anyone with my problems."
  • "I should be able to handle this on my own."
Grief
  • "He can't be gone. It's all a big mistake, and he will walk in the door. Wait and see."
  • "I still set a place for them at the dinner table, just in case they come back."
  • "I haven't removed their belongings because it would mean they're truly gone."

Effects of denial

Denial can have far-reaching consequences, leading people down a path of maladaptive behaviors and persistent challenges in life. This defense mechanism can pave the way for unhealthy habits to take root and allow detrimental situations to persist. Here are 3 examples of how denial can affect a person's life:

  • Relationships. Denial can cause major issues in a relationship. When someone constantly avoids acknowledging their destructive behaviors or refuses to take responsibility for their actions, it can lead to mistrust, frustration, and resentment in relationships. For instance, denying one's anger issues and not seeking help can result in frequent conflicts and alienation from loved ones.
  • Physical health. Prolonged denial of physical health issues can have severe consequences. For example, if someone denies their chronic illness symptoms and avoids seeking medical attention, their condition can deteriorate over time, potentially leading to complications or irreversible damage.
  • Career. Denial can have a significant impact on a person’s professional life, affecting job performance and career prospects. Someone in denial about their addiction may continue to drink or take drugs, even while at work, and fail to acknowledge the detrimental effect it has on their abilities. This can result in disciplinary action, and in severe cases, job loss.

Supporting a person in denial

Dealing with deeply ingrained denial is a very complex and challenging situation that deserves its own comprehensive article. When supporting someone in such a state, keep in mind that they may not even be aware of their denial.

While empathy, understanding, and compassion are always advised, it is important to acknowledge that it can be incredibly frustrating and upsetting to deal with a person in deep denial. If things seem completely out of control and it is affecting your well-being, you will need to set appropriate boundaries to protect yourself or, in a workplace context, refer the person to HR for professional assistance. Self-care and preserving your own mental health are essential when dealing with deep-rooted denial.

Moving out of denial: Accepting the path to healing

Moving from denial to acceptance is a journey filled with highs and lows but keep front of mind that it can be done. With determination and support, people move beyond denial, develop healthier coping mechanisms, and find hope in leading a more fulfilling life. Here are some healthy ways to deal with denial:

  • Recognize your power of choice. Everyone possesses the inherent power to make choices. You might feel trapped and like you don't have a choice. Even in the depths of denial, acknowledging that you have a choice to change what you are doing can be the first step toward positive change.
  • Take responsibility. Moving beyond denial involves taking responsibility for your actions, thoughts, and feelings. Instead of blaming others or external circumstances, take responsibility for your own behaviors.
  • Focus on quality relationships. Surround yourself with positive people who nurture you and want the best for you but will also challenge your behavior in a loving way. Join a support group where people can point out your denial in a safe, supportive environment.
  • Self-help. There is a vast world of self-help resources just waiting to be explored. Buy some books that build your hope and show you that there is a path to recovery, watch videos of personal testimonies of how others did it, take an emotional intelligence course, and develop your ability to sit with uncomfortable emotions.
  • Meditation and mindfulness. Through regular meditation practice, you can develop a heightened awareness of your thoughts and emotions, allowing you to move out of denial in a gentle, non-judgmental way.
  • Personal therapy or group therapy. When denial has deeply rooted itself in your life, going for therapy can be the responsible thing to do. Professional therapy can provide a safe and supportive environment for you to explore the underlying causes of your denial and work through them.
  • Mental health apps. These apps can provide convenient access to resources, tools, and support and help individuals manage their mental well-being and seek help when needed.

Transitioning from denial to acceptance is entirely achievable. Expect the journey to have its ups and downs, but always hold onto the belief that it is possible. Stay motivated, and you can find the path to a more fulfilling life.

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