adapted from an article in the April issue of Mayo Clinic Women’s HealthSource
Denial is a common response to a stressful situation. It can be an important coping and defense mechanism. But it also can delay the appropriate response to circumstances that require action and change.
Denial in its broadest sense means refusing to acknowledge painful or overwhelming circumstances, avoiding the facts or minimizing the consequences.
Denial — or even healthy scepticism — can help people withhold judgment until all the facts are in. It prevents obsession with minor aches and pains. A cough does not mean pneumonia until it’s properly diagnosed.
When patients hear bad health news, denying or suppressing it can offer needed time to come to grips with challenges ahead. Gradually adjusting to major changes can lead to better decisions in the long run. This gradual adjustment is referred to as an adaptive response.
But denial that prevents patients from seeking treatment or leads to misuse of alcohol or drugs becomes a maladaptive or harmful response. A woman who finds a lump in her breast and ignores it misses the benefit of an early diagnosis and best chance for a cure. Denying the consequences of smoking or staying in an abusive relationship can jeopardize long-term health.
It all comes down to finding a healthy balance. When faced with an overwhelming turn of events, people can benefit from taking some time to adjust. But that doesn’t change the facts of the situation. A mental health professional can help those stuck in denial find healthy ways of coping.
Understanding denial and its purpose
Refusing to acknowledge that something’s wrong is a way of coping with emotional conflict, stress, painful thoughts, threatening information and anxiety.
When you’re in denial, you:
- Refuse to acknowledge a stressful problem or situation
- Avoid facing the facts of the situation
- Minimize the consequences of the situation
In its strictest sense, denial is an unconscious process. You don’t generally decide to be in denial about something. But some research suggests that denial might have a conscious component — on some level, you might choose to be in denial.
Common reasons for denial
You can be in denial about anything that leads you to feel vulnerable, afraid, ashamed, guilty or threatens your sense of control, such as:
- A chronic condition (such as HSP)
- Depression or other mental health conditions
- Financial problems
- Job difficulties
- Relationship conflicts
- Traumatic events
You can be in denial about something happening to you or to someone else.
Situations in which denial can be helpful
Refusing to face facts might seem blatantly unhealthy. Sometimes, though, a short period of denial can be helpful. Being in denial gives your mind the opportunity to unconsciously absorb shocking or distressing information at a pace that won’t send you into a psychological tailspin.
For example, after a traumatic event, you might need several days or weeks to fully process what’s happened and come to grips with the challenges ahead. Imagine what might happen if you find a lump in your throat. You might feel a rush of fear and adrenaline as you imagine it’s cancer. So you decide to ignore the lump, hoping it’ll go away on its own. But when the lump is still there a week later, you consult your doctor.
This type of denial is a helpful response to stressful information. You initially denied the distressing problem. As your mind absorbed it, however, you came to approach it more rationally and took action by seeking help.
Situations in which denial can be harmful
But what if you had continued to be in denial about the lump and tried to forget about it entirely? What if you never sought help? If denial persists and prevents you from taking appropriate action, such as consulting your doctor, it’s a harmful response.
Consider these examples of unhealthy denial:
- A college student witnesses a violent shooting but claims not to be affected by it.
- The partner of an older man in the end stage of life refuses to discuss health care directives and wills, insisting that he’s getting better.
- An administrator periodically misses a morning meeting after drinking excessively the night before, but insists there’s no problem because the work is still getting done.
- A couple are ringing up so much credit card debt that they toss the bills aside because they can’t bear to open them.
- The parents of a young daughter with drug addiction keep giving her “clothing” money.
- A family with HSP refuses to acknowledge, let alone discuss the condition or seek information, and get upset when someone else does, even isolating extended family who do talk about it.
In situations such as these, denial might prevent you or your loved ones from getting help, such as treatment or counseling, or dealing with problems that can spiral out of control — with potentially serious consequences over time.
Moving past denial
When faced with an overwhelming turn of events, it’s OK to say, “I just can’t think about all of this right now.” You might need time to work through what’s happened and adapt to new circumstances. But it’s important to realize that denial should only be a temporary measure — it won’t change the reality of the situation.
It isn’t always easy to tell if denial is holding you back. If you feel stuck or if someone you trust suggests that you’re in denial, however, you might try these strategies:
- Honestly ask yourself what you fear.
- Think about the potential negative consequences of not acknowledging reality.
- Allow yourself to express your fears and emotions.
- Try to identify irrational beliefs about your situation.
- Write a diary about your experience.
- Open up to a trusted friend or loved one.
- Participate in a support group.
If you don’t seem to be making much progress dealing with a stressful situation on your own — you’re stuck in the denial phase — consider talking to a mental health provider. He or she can help you find healthy ways to cope with the situation rather than trying to pretend it doesn’t exist.
When a loved one needs help moving beyond denial
You might find it incredibly frustrating when someone you care about is in denial about an important issue. But before demanding that your loved one face the facts, take a step back. Try to determine if he or she just needs a little time to work through the issue.
At the same time, let the person know that you’re open to talking about the subject, even if it makes both of you slightly uncomfortable. Ultimately, this may give your loved one the security he or she needs to move forward and take action.
If your loved one is in denial about a serious health issue, such as depression, disease or an addiction, broaching the issue may be especially difficult. Offer support and empathetic listening. Don’t try to force someone to seek treatment, which could lead to angry confrontations. Offer to meet together with a doctor or mental health provider. If the impasse remains, consider counseling for yourself to help you cope with your distress and frustration.
The earlier you take care of a problem the less of a problem it will be.
Deepak Chopra, self-help author, on Denial:
Denial is looking past the problem instead of facing it. Psychologists consider denial the most childish of the three behaviors because it is so intimately linked to vulnerability. The person in denial feels helpless to solve problems, the way a young child feels. Fear is linked to denial, and so is a childlike need for love in the face of insecurity.
The underlying idea is “I don’t have to notice what I can’t change in the first place.” You can catch yourself going into denial when you experience lack of focus, forgetfulness, procrastination, refusing to confront those who hurt you, wishful thinking, false hope, and confusion. The main external sign is that others don’t depend on you or turn to you when a solution is needed. By pulling your attention out of focus, denial defends with blindness. How can you be accused of failing at something you don’t even see?
You get past denial by facing up to painful truths:
- Honestly expressing how you feel is the first step. For someone in deep denial, any feeling that makes you think you are unsafe is generally one you have to face.
- Denial begins to end when you feel focused, alert, and ready to participate despite your fears.
- How do I break through the illusion of denial? As long as you look the other way, illusion persists, so you must pay attention.
- Do this by sitting quietly and with firm but gentle resolve ask for your true feelings to come forward.
- Be with any source of pain in your body. Feel it directly, no matter where it is.
- Now ask the pain of every kind to gather in your heart. As it gathers, ask each aspect of suffering to name itself. Be as specific as possible.
- Having defined specifically the exact emotion you are experiencing, whether it is fear, anger, guilt, or depression, express the origins of this feeling to yourself through writing or journaling. Be careful not to use the language of victimization.
- Once you have completed this task, share these feelings with someone you can trust.
- Next you may release them through a ritual of your own devising – such as dancing, or burning the papers on which you have written down your experiences.
- Finally, celebrate the release of this blocked energy. Instead of denying your suffering, which only prolongs it, now you have defined, expressed, shared, released, and celebrated it – and moved on.