Denial as a Defense Mechanism

Published on: 16 Dec 2020
Clinically Reviewed by Meaghan Rice PsyD., LPC
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Updated 1/18/2023

Denial can be used as a defense mechanism similarly to the other types of defense mechanisms such as projection, rationalization, and displacement defense mechanisms. When someone engages in denial, they ignore or refuse to accept reality. The denial defense mechanism can be an attempt to avoid uncomfortable realities (such as grief), anxiety, or truths or a means of coping with distressing or painful situations, unpleasant feelings, or traumatic events. 

While being in denial can give you time to adjust to sudden life changes, this defense mechanism can also prevent you from acknowledging and addressing issues in your life. 

Keep reading to learn more about the signs of denial and to hear examples and impacts of this defense mechanism, as well as some effective tips on breaking the cycle to better deal with negative emotion. 

Signs of Denial 

Since it’s often an unconscious process, it can be difficult to recognize or admit when you’re in denial. Familiarizing yourself with common signs of denial can help you spot patterns in your own behavior. 

Denial typically involves:

  • Blaming: People in denial often blame others for their own mistakes or behaviors. You may be using denial as a defense mechanism if you’re frequently finding reasons to place blame on others. Taking responsibility for your actions is an important part of the healing process, and blaming others gets in the way. Sometimes “blaming” is also referred to as projection.
  • Rationalizing: It’s common for people in denial to make excuses to justify a situation or behavior. These excuses can apply to a person’s own behavior or to other people’s actions. 
  • Avoidance: Denial is a way to avoid facing problems or difficult situations. If you have a tendency to ignore issues in your life, it’s possible that you’re prone to denial. 
  • Minimizing: Some people in denial will admit that there’s a problem but downplay the issue or refuse to admit that it’s a big deal. Minimizing is common in those who struggle with addiction.
  • Self-deception: Ultimately, denial is largely about deceiving yourself. When you’re in denial, you’re substituting aspects of your life for another reality that may be easier to cope with.

Examples of Denial as a Defense Mechanism

Many people turn to denial if they’re not ready to deal with a challenging situation or face a difficult truth. 

Some denial defense mechanism examples include:

  • Some people who are diagnosed with a terminal illness might deny the severity of their condition. It’s not unusual to try and avoid hospice care or refuse to acknowledge that a diagnosis or condition is terminal, but it’s also not a healthy coping technique, either.  
  • Denial is one of the stages of grief. If someone is grieving a loss, such as the end of a relationship or the death of a loved one, they may pretend that the loss isn’t real. 
  • After hurting a loved one, a person might deny that they did anything wrong. They may even look for ways to blame the person they hurt for their actions. 
  • Someone in an abusive relationship might deny that their partner has a pattern of harmful behavior. They may excuse the way they act, insisting that their partner is usually sweet or that they’re just dealing with any of the types of stress
  • It’s not uncommon for people struggling with substance abuse to minimize their reliance on substances or to flat out deny that they’re using them at all. A common denial defense mechanism example for someone struggling with addiction is the phrase “I can stop anytime.

The Impact of Using Denial as Defense Mechanism

In the short-term, denial can sometimes be beneficial. It can be a way to temporarily avoid difficult emotions when you’re feeling burnt out or overwhelmed. However, if you fail to address the issue that you’re avoiding, denial can have severe consequences. 

Denying the existence or severity of an issue means that the problem can’t be dealt with. Research shows denial as a coping mechanism is associated with poor physical and mental health. 

If someone’s in denial, they might refuse to get treatment for a serious illness or resist talking to a professional about mental health symptoms that are impacting their life.

“Denial is often a short-term or temporary solution to a problem. Eventually, the issue will be confronted again and there will be no way to ‘hide’ from it. When denial is used too often, it can affect the decisions that are made and how unhealthy situations are handled. Overall, there’s an element of deflecting personal responsibility over a situation. Sometimes, it’s done because a situation is overwhelming, but continued use of denial can contribute to poor decision making.” – Talkspace therapist Minkyung Chung, MS, LMHC

Being in denial can also leave people feeling like they’re stuck. When someone stays in denial, they don’t have a way to move forward. Some issues can be painful to acknowledge, but in the long run, facing your problems is always going to be better for your mental and physical well-being. 

Tips for Avoiding a Denial Defense Mechanism

Denial is considered the most common defense mechanism. Unlike a coping mechanism, there’s not much conscious awareness with a defense mechanism. Though denial can be a necessary part of the healing process, it’s not going to be an effective long-term solution. To heal and move on, you must work to overcome and address problems directly rather than deny them. 

Looking for ways to break the cycle of using denial as a defense mechanism? The following tips can help.

Slow down

You’re more likely to use defense mechanisms like denial when you react quickly. Try to slow down your responses and think about what you’re going to say or do before you act. Sometimes, giving yourself even just a moment to pause and reflect can help you process and manage situations in a healthier manner.

Practice mindfulness

Mindful meditation can increase self-awareness and make you more comfortable with what’s happening in the present. Studies also show that mindfulness can reduce stress, meaning you might be less likely to turn to any unhealthy coping strategies such as denial. Mindfulness is a common practice when you attend cognitive behavioral therapy. 

Try journaling  

Even if you’re not ready to discuss what you’re thinking or feeling, it might be beneficial to document your thoughts in a journal. Journaling for mental health can help you get in touch with your feelings and keep track of your daily habits — both of which are useful in identifying triggers that may contribute to a tendency to use denial as a defense mechanism. 

Use grounding techniques

Grounding techniques, like deep breathing exercises for anxiety and naming objects around you, can be useful if you turn to denial as a way to deal with things. Grounding yourself means you’re in tune and in touch with the real world and your reality, so you can process and accept (even difficult) things as you experience them. 

Even just getting outside and lying in the grass, digging your hands into the earth, stretching, or enjoying a favorite snack can be grounding. 

Open up to others

Rather than bottling things up and denying what you’re feeling, make a point of talking through your emotions with people you really trust. Healthy communication and learning to navigate open conversations with others will let you see yourself from another perspective. 

Seek professional help

It’s common for people to turn to defense mechanisms like denial when they’re dealing with something that’s too painful to acknowledge. Therapy can help you recognize and process the strong emotion that you’re struggling to cope with. 

“Not all denial is bad. There are times when it’s used to help you work through the information that caused the reaction. However, it is important to recognize when denial is being used detrimentally. It starts with being honest about why the information/situation overwhelms you. Then, work from there to slowly work through the issues at hand. Working with mental health professionals can better aid in this endeavor, as they can help you retain focus on the issues at hand and find the right coping strategies to build a healthier reaction.” – Talkspace therapist Minkyung Chung, MS, LMHC

Working on Healthier Coping 

It isn’t always easy to acknowledge a problem or accept the reality of a situation, especially if you’re prone to denial. Therapy can make you more aware of your defense mechanisms or coping mechanisms, allowing you to confront your behaviors and replace them with healthier coping strategies. 

If you suspect that you’re using denial as a defense mechanism, or if you’re concerned about a loved one who you believe is in denial, don’t hesitate to reach out to Talkspace for help. 

Talkspace is an online therapy platform that’s changing the mental health landscape. With accessible, convenient, and skilled Talkspace therapists, you can learn how to change the negative thought patterns associated with denial. 

Sources:

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2. Schuckit M, Clarke D, Smith T, Mendoza L. Characteristics associated with denial of problem drinking among two generations of individuals with alcohol use disorders. Drug Alcohol Depend. 2020;217:108274. doi:10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2020.108274. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7736262/. Accessed October 3, 2022.

3. Kamen C, Taniguchi S, Student A et al. The impact of denial on health-related quality of life in patients with HIV. Quality of Life Research. 2011;21(8):1327-1336. doi:10.1007/s11136-011-0045-y. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22038393/. Accessed October 3, 2022.

4. Sharma M, Rush S. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction as a Stress Management Intervention for Healthy Individuals. Journal of Evidence-Based Complementary & Alternative Medicine. 2014;19(4):271-286. doi:10.1177/2156587214543143. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25053754/. Accessed October 3, 2022.

Talkspace articles are written by experienced mental health-wellness contributors; they are grounded in scientific research and evidence-based practices. Articles are extensively reviewed by our team of clinical experts (therapists and psychiatrists of various specialties) to ensure content is accurate and on par with current industry standards.

Our goal at Talkspace is to provide the most up-to-date, valuable, and objective information on mental health-related topics in order to help readers make informed decisions.

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