Denial is a necessary defense mechanism, but it can cause a lot of hidden harm.
Posted Dec 01, 2019
We’re all in denial. We’d barely get through the day if we worried that we or people we love could die today. Life is unpredictable, and denial helps us cope and focus on what we must in order to survive. On the other hand, denial harms us when it causes us to ignore problems for which there are solutions or deny feelings and needs that if dealt with would enhance our lives. Unfortunately, if you’re in denial, you won’t know it. Read on to learn how to recognize denial in its many forms.
Types and Degrees of Denial
When it comes to dependent behaviors, denial has been called the hallmark of addiction. It’s true not only for drug (including alcohol) abusers, but also for their partners and family members. This axiom also applies to abuse and other types of addiction. We may use denial in varying degrees.
First degree: Denial that the problem, symptom, feeling or need exists.
Second degree: Minimization or rationalization about it.
Third degree: Admitting it, but denying the consequences.
Fourth degree: Unwilling to seek help for it.
Thus, denial doesn’t always mean we don’t see there’s a problem, we might rationalize, excuse, or minimize its significance or effect upon us. Other types of denial are forgetting, outright lying or contradicting the facts due to self-deception. Deeper still, we may repress things that are too painful to remember or think about.
Reasons for Denial
Denial is a defense that helps us. There are many reasons we use denial, including avoidance of physical or emotional pain, fear, shame or conflict. We’re actually wired to deny for survival. It’s the first defense that we learn as a child. I thought it cute when my 4-year-old son vehemently denied having eaten any chocolate ice cream, while the evidence was smeared all over his mouth. He had lied out of self-preservation and the fear of being punished.
Denial is adaptive when it helps us cope with difficult emotions, such as in the initial stages of grief following the loss of a loved one, particularly if the separation or death is sudden. Denial allows our body-mind to adjust to the shock more gradually.
It’s not adaptive when we deny warning signs of a treatable illness or problem out of fear. Many women delay getting mammograms or biopsies out of fear, even though early intervention leads to greater success in treating cancer. Applying the various degrees, above, we might deny that we have a lump; next rationalize that it’s probably a cyst; third, admit that it could be or actually is cancer, but deny that it could lead to death; or admit all of the above and still be unwilling to get treatment.
Another major reason for denial is inner conflict. Children often repress memories of abuse not only due to their pain, but because they’re dependent on their parents, love them, and are powerless to leave home. Young children idealize their parents. It’s easier to forget, rationalize, or make excuses than accept the unthinkable reality that my mother or father (their entire world) is cruel or crazy. Instead, they blame themselves.
As adults, we deny the truth when it might mean we’d have to take action we don’t want to. We might not look at how much debt we’ve accumulated, because that would require us to lower our spending or standard of living, creating inner conflict.
A wife rationalizes facts that suggest her husband is cheating and supplies other explanations. Confronting the truth forces her to face not only the pain of betrayal, humiliation, and loss, but the possibility of divorce. An addicted parent might look the other way when his child is getting high, because he’d have to do something about his own marijuana habit.
Frequently, partners of addicts or abusers are on the “merry-go-round” of denial. The Addicts and abuser can be loving and even responsible at times and promise to stop their drug use or abuse, but soon it returns breaking trust and promises. Once again apologies and promises are made and believed because the partner loves them, may deny his or her own needs and worth, and is afraid to end the relationship.
Another reason we deny problems is because they’re familiar. We grew up with them and don’t see that something is wrong. So if we were emotionally abused as a child,we wouldn’t consider mistreatment by our spouse to be abuse. If we were molested, we might not notice or protect our child being harmed. This is first degree denial.
We might acknowledge that our spouse is verbally abusive, but minimize or rationalize. One woman told me that even though her husband was verbally abusive, she knew he loved her. Most victims of abuse experience third degree denial, meaning that they don’t realize the detrimental impact the abuse is having on them – often leading to PTSD long after they’ve left the abuser. If they faced the truth, they’d be more likely to seek help.
Shame and trauma
Shame is an extremely painful emotion. Most people, including myself for many years, don’t realize how much shame drives their lives – even if they think their self-esteem is pretty good. Needs and feelings are often “shame-bonded” in childhood if they were ignored or shamed. We may deny a shame-bonded feeling, such as fear or anger, minimize or rationalize it, or be unaware of how much it’s affecting us.
Denial of needs is a major reason people remain unhappy in relationships. They deny problems and deny that they’re not getting their needs met. They’re not aware that that’s the case. If they do, they might feel guilty and lack the courage to ask for what they need or know how to get their need met. Learning to identify and express our feelings and needs is a major part of recovery and is essential to well-being and enjoying satisfying relationships.
How to Know if You’re in Denial
You might be wondering how to tell if you’re in denial. There are actually signs. I’ve mentioned some, including rationalization, making excuses, forgetting, and minimization. If you’re in a relationship with a drug user or drinker, does your partner’s behavior affect his or her job, family and social obligations, or your relationship? Here are more. Do you:
- Think about how you wish things would be in your relationship?
- Wonder, “If only, he (or she) would . . .”?
- Doubt or dismiss your feelings?
- Believe repeated broken assurances?
- Conceal embarrassing aspects of your relationship?
- Hope things will improve when something happens (e.g., a vacation, moving, or getting married)?
- Make concessions and placate, hoping it will change someone else?
- Feel resentful or used by your partner?
- Spend years waiting for your relationship to improve or someone to change?
- Walk on egg-shells, worry about your partner’s whereabouts, or dread talking about problems?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, uncover how you may have been trained to deny and tips for what you can do. A professional therapist can assist your recovery by pointing out your defenses, questioning contradictions between your thoughts and reality, helping you identify denied feelings and needs, and supporting you in facing your fears and inner conflicts and in making changes.
©Darlene Lancer 2014