Denial is a natural psychological coping mechanism, and it’s completely normal, especially in times of great stress or trauma. While denial gets a bad rap, it can actually be helpful in small doses, as it serves to protect us in the initial stages of shock after overwhelming trauma, loss, or fear.
What Is Denial?
Denial is one of five stages of grief according to psychiatrist Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s popular Five Stages of Grief model. Denial helps us process the storm of emotions that comes with grief by shielding us from the blow of a great trauma. Denial is an unconcious, self-protective defense that allows us to pretend that that shock hasn’t taken place.
Many have misinterpreted the Kübler-Ross model over the years, mistakenly assuming that the stages of grief are linear and chronological. However, there is not necessarily a defined pattern for the stages of grief. Grief is a highly individual experience. Sometimes the stages overlap, sometimes they don’t progress linearly, and sometimes they disappear for long periods of time. The pattern is less predictable than is often portrayed in the media.
Denial Is a Normal Response to Pain
Long-term, denial can be unhealthy and is not a coping mechanism that should be heavily relied on in everyday life. But short-term, denial is actually a useful coping mechanism to begin the healing process.
Denial is a completely normal and valid human response to pain. It isn’t anything to feel ashamed of. However, denial also isn’t a long-term solution to dealing with problems. In order to address issues, the first step is often to acknowledge there’s an issue at all. One must overcome denial before reaching this critical point.
Denial is a versatile strategy for dealing with loss — it is often deployed when a person is battling addiction, illness, or stress. It can also blind someone from acknowledging the harm they’re causing loved ones, for example refusing to see signs of a partner’s substance abuse despite the warnings of friends. In refusing to accept the truth of a situation, a person is in active denial, meaning they’re likely not yet ready to face the struggle ahead.
Denial As a Defense Mechanism
The concept of defense mechanisms was first put forward by Sigmund Freud, who posited that defensiveness was a result of the ego protecting itself from the id. The id, according to Freud, is the essence of our human personalities, our primal subconscious. The ego can be thought of as the id’s handler. If the id was in total control, we would live our lives as slaves to primal desires, such as food, sex, and sleep. The ego, while it develops over time, deals with our reality, helping gratify the id’s needs in a socially responsible and realistic way.
Say, for example, you find yourself in a potentially dangerous situation. It’s dark and you’re walking home alone when you hear footsteps. Your id floods your body with anxiety, while your ego tries to rationalize the footsteps. Denial serves as one of the ego’s defense mechanisms. It helps us remind ourselves, “I always feel safe in this neighborhood. There is no reason to feel afraid.”
Denial functions primarily to protect us from getting too overwhelmed. Denial can help us process grief and trauma in chunks that feel manageable, rather than hitting us all at once. If we tried to process such intense realizations all at once, we’d be likely to go into shock. Over time, denial gradually fades to allow us to internalize whatever reality we need to absorb and begin to process it.
Signs of Denial
It can be difficult to tell when you’re in the throes of denial, given that the nature of denial itself is a repudiation of reality. There are, however, some tell-tale signs that you can observe.
You may acknowledge that there’s an issue, but insist it’s not a big problem. This is minimizing, a common behavior in people struggling with addiction.
Rationalizing involves making excuses for a particular person or behavior. A person in an abusive relationship may find themself rationalizing their partner’s behavior by saying something like, “Well, normally he’s so sweet. But lately he’s just been so stressed at work. I think things will calm down soon.”
Self-deception is simply lying to oneself about the nature or degree of a situation. A big part of denial is living in a kind of altered reality — a reality that’s easier to endure than actual reality.
If you find yourself consistently placing blame on others or on circumstances outside of your control, chances are you might be in denial. Taking responsibility for your actions is an important part of the healing process, and blaming others gets in the way. (This is sometimes known as projection.)
Moving Past Denial
Though denial is often a necessary step to healing, it’s not a long-term solution. In order to move forward, one must overcome denial and address the problem directly. But how should one do that? Here are some steps.
Communicating with others
Having open, honest conversations with others in your life can help you realize you’re in a state of denial. Allow yourself to see others’ perspective, as different as it may be from your own.
There are many grounding techniques you can try, both mental and physical, to help you focus when you feel overwhelmed. Some techniques that may work for you include deep breathing and naming objects around you. Another common grounding technique involves getting outside and lying in the grass or digging your hands into the earth. Still, even something as simple as stretching or relishing a favorite snack can be grounding.
Keep a notebook to jot down your thoughts and fears. Examine what it is you’re afraid of. Where does that fear come from? Is it based in reality? If you’re struggling with addiction or disordered eating, it may be helpful to keep track of your daily habits. How many drinks are you having a day? Seeing those facts listed on paper can be a helpful tool in overcoming denial and facing the facts of your experience and behaviors.
Licensed therapists and counselors are well-versed in helping people navigate through and beyond denial and can help you move forward. Whether it’s treating a specific issue, such as addiction, or grief, speaking with a mental-health professional can be incredibly helpful in understanding your responses. Sharing your experience with a support group can also be helpful to overcome denial.
Helping a Loved One Move Past Denial
If someone you love is dealing with denial, it can feel difficult to know how to help. After all, how can you help someone who refuses to help themself and denies the issue exists?
One of the best things you can do is give the person space and time to understand their issue. Just because something is clear to you doesn’t mean they see the challenge in the same way. This may be especially true when the person is more directly impacted by a situation — for example, after the diagnosis of a chronic illness. Step back and acknowledge that the person may need more time than you acclimate to their new reality.
At the same time, make sure to be clear that you are there for the person, and willing to talk about any issue, however difficult. Your acknowledgement of the difficulties may help the person face it sooner rather than later. Listen and offer support — and be ready to help them find treatment when they’re ready. Remember that treatment is most effective when a person is willing to embark on the process.
If you or someone you love is in denial, a good first step might be to speak with a licensed therapist — Talkspace is a convenient, affordable option that allows you to get started today!