How Being in Denial Can Harm Us

woman holding up her hands in front of her body

One of the ways we protect ourselves when we are having strong, overwhelming, emotional feelings is to go into a state of denial.

According to the website BritannicaDenial is the conscious refusal to perceive that painful facts exist.” It is a way for an individual to escape intolerable thoughts, feelings, or events.

According to the website Very Well Mind “Denial is a type of defense mechanism that involves ignoring the reality of a situation to avoid anxiety. Defense mechanisms are strategies that people use to cope with distressing feelings. In the case of denial, it can involve not acknowledging reality or denying the consequences of that reality.”

The Very Well Mind article goes on to say, “… in the short term, this defense mechanism can have a useful purpose. It can allow you to have time to adjust to a sudden change in your reality. By giving yourself time, you might be able to accept, adapt, and eventually move on.”

In this era of trying to survive a major pandemic, dealing with all the political unrest in recent years, experiencing revelations about the racial injustice that is prevalent in our country, and facing the fears about a possible nuclear war as we watch the horrors of what is happening to Ukraine, we all can benefit from being able to step back and basically shut down for a while as we go into a state of denial.

That denial may be in the form of telling ourselves that it’s not that bad, and it will get better if we all just breathe. Having a mental mechanism for stepping back and stepping away from overwhelming thoughts and feelings can buy us the time needed to eventually deal with the realities we have been denying.

It can be hard to identify things we are denying because this denial process prevents us from actually seeing truths that are around us. Some folks wanted to deny that the pandemic was a reality and refused to take the recommended precautions such as wearing masks and practicing social distancing. For some it wasn’t until there were more than a million deaths in this country that it became almost impossible to deny the reality of how deadly the pandemic has been.

It can be very frustrating for us when people around us deny certain realities. People sometimes misuse medication or drink to excess, stating that they don’t really have a problem and could stop any time they wanted to. Sometimes people ignore physical symptoms of illness because they don’t want to deal with the reality that they may need to see a doctor or go to a hospital. Once a long time ago I was with a friend and I had been coughing for days, and ignored the fact that I had symptoms of a fever and could barely breathe. She took matters into her own hands and called her husband who happened to be my family doctor and it turned out I had severe bronchitis and needed antibiotics. I just didn’t want to deal with the fact that I was really sick and so denial prevented me from having the common sense to take care of myself.

Sometimes people excuse harmful parenting practices that clearly are physically and/or emotionally wounding a child because they don’t want to believe the perpetrator of that abuse is doing something wrong. Telling themselves that it really isn’t abuse is a form of denial that can have major consequences down the road for a child who feels unprotected by a parent who looks the other way.

As challenging as it can be, it is important to recognize how the defense mechanism of denial, when it prevents us from taking action to protect victims, especially innocent children, can allow harmful behaviors to continue. It takes courage to stop looking the other way and confront what we have been denying. Sometimes we need to enlist the help of others who can reassure us that we do indeed need to step in and take a stance. Sometimes we need to know we will survive even if a person we confront turns away from us as a result.

Addressing one’s own denial means taking out and dusting off our moral imperatives that serve as guides for fair and healthy behavior. It means being willing to face potential feelings of pain of guilt and shame for waiting.

In exploring this concept of denial, I think we need to be kind to ourselves and others who are in a state of denial and, if it is not harmful, allow that denial to exist. Sometimes what we deny is not all that significant. Being on the lookout for denial of serious issues can certainly be a challenge, but one worth taking.

Invitation for Reflection

  1. Notice how you felt as you read this blog. Did it make you feel uncomfortable? Sometimes we want to deny denial to avoid pain and guilt.
  2. What images came to light as you considered the concept of denial? Can you see how it may have negatively impacted yourself or others?
  3. Consider ways you can be compassionate toward yourself and others who are denying things they need to address. What are some gentle ways you can encourage yourself and others to take off the denial-blinders and look at and then deal with a reality?

Diane Wagenhals, Director, Lakeside Global Institute