Denial is a defensive mechanism with a poor reputation. The common perception of denial is that it is harmful; that it prevents a person from accepting their reality and moving forward.
However, denial is not necessarily an unhealthy thing. Sometimes it’s necessary.
Denial serves an important role in preserving a person’s mental health when confronted with some kind of awful thing. It’s the brain protecting itself from the immediate anxiety and trauma that thing would cause.
Denial may be immediately after an experience, or it could be later on when a person refuses to acknowledge something that happened in their past.
The problem with denial is that it prevents you from living your life, addressing your problems, healing from them, and moving forward.
The first step on any healing path is acknowledgment and acceptance of the problem. Being stuck in denial prevents the person from taking that first step.
Speak to an accredited and experienced therapist to help you process and deal with the thing(s) you are in denial about. You may want to try speaking to one via BetterHelp.com for quality care at its most convenient.
Symptoms Of Denial
There are many negative feelings that people try to avoid. No one wants to be exposed to traumatic experiences, threatening situations, stress, or terrible consequences.
Unfortunately, we don’t always get that choice. Life will sometimes just throw things at you that you have to find a way to deal with and move past.
Still, it can be helpful to know when you or a loved one may be experiencing denial, so you can at least be aware of it.
These are some common signs that someone is in denial:
1. You avoid engaging with or thinking about the problem. (“I’ll just zone out and watch Netflix or mindlessly scroll through social media instead of thinking.”)
2. You blame other people or circumstances for the problem. (“I wouldn’t be drinking so much if my spouse wasn’t always stressing me out.”)
3. You continue harmful actions even though it has negative consequences. (“I’m not going to go to a dentist for this toothache, even though it’ll only get worse.”)
4. You justify your negative behavior or circumstances. (“I can’t have fun without drinking.”)
5. You say you will just address the problem in the future. (“That toothache isn’t a big deal. I’ll deal with it in a couple of weeks.”)
6. You just won’t talk about the problem with anyone. (“I don’t want to talk about it. Ever.”)
7. You ignore and minimize the concerns of others. (“You don’t know me. You don’t know what I can and can’t handle.”)
8. You may be using threats or intimidation to keep other people from talking to you about it. (“F*ck you. I don’t have a problem.”)
9. You may be engaging in self-harm to replace emotional pain with physical pain. (Cutting, punching yourself, burning yourself, etc.)
10. You may be engaging in unhealthy, abusive behaviors. (Substance abuse, working far too much to avoid thinking about it, promiscuous or unhealthy sexual behavior.)
11. You may withdraw from other people, so no one asks too many questions. (Not answering calls, not returning messages, calling out of work, avoiding family members.)
12. You justify your behavior by comparing it to others. (“I don’t have a drinking problem! Mark drinks way more than I do!”)
Denial may also manifest as having similar symptoms as depression. The person in denial may feel helpless or hopeless in addressing the situation. They may also believe that nothing they can do about the situation will make a difference.
Examples Of Denial
Denial is a common defensive mechanism for avoiding consequences or dealing with stressful situations.
In fact, it’s quite likely that you have used denial sometime in your life to avoid an unpleasant truth. It’s okay if you have. Everyone does it sooner or later.
Some examples of denial include:
1. Denying a mental health issue.
Many people with mental health issues struggle with accepting that fact. To accept that one has a mental health issue or mental illness is to accept that one is different from the social perception of normal. No one really wants to be an outsider. That’s more of a state of being imposed on us by our experiences and circumstances.
Of course, there can be many reasons to deny mental health problems, ranging from refusal to accept reality to wanting to avoid stigma. It’s no easy thing to deal with. The problem with denying mental health issues is that they don’t go away independently. They just get worse until you can no longer ignore them.
2. Denying or minimizing substance abuse.
The common way for people to deny substance abuse issues is by either comparing themselves to another or justifying their behavior.
For example, they may say they don’t have a problem because someone else is much worse off. They may also use the excuse that they don’t really have a problem because they are functional and able to work.
3. Denying health issues.
A person diagnosed with a chronic illness or serious medical condition may minimize their diagnosis. They convince themselves that it’s not as bad as the doctors say or look for nonmedical treatment methods. The problem with this is that the person often delays medical treatment, making the problem much worse.
4. Denying a bereavement.
An unexpected death may cause a loved one to avoid the reality of the situation. They refuse to accept it and may act as though the person is still alive so they can avoid the pain and stress of losing their loved one.
Now, denial is a step in the stages of grief, and it is totally normal to want to deny a loss. Eventually, though, you will have to accept it.
5. Denying their own poor behavior.
Many people deny that their actions may have hurt someone they care about. This can look like a flat-out refusal to talk about the situation or shift the blame onto the harmed person. “You made me do it!”
How Do I Address My Denial?
Since denial has many causes, the solution will largely rely on the cause.
Often, denial happens immediately after a difficult or traumatic event because the brain is just creating space to cope. However, you may find that you break through your denial on your own after a while when your brain subconsciously determines that it can handle the stress.
On the other hand, sometimes denial is willful. You may know that there is a problem and refuses to address it. You may also not understand how serious the problem actually is. You won’t break through that denial until they can see that there is a problem and choose to accept it.
You see this with substance abuse often. But unfortunately, many people don’t give sobriety the effort they deserve until they lose everything they care about, like a career, spouse, or family. That ugly reality can punch straight through denial.
The other solution is to look into therapy relevant to the problem you’re facing. People often throw around generic advice like “look for a counselor.”
But the reality is that a specific counselor can be of more help. If you’re trying to get through grief, look into a grief counselor. If you had a traumatic experience, talk to a trauma counselor. If you have mental health issues, talk to a mental health counselor. Substance abuse problems? There are definitely substance abuse counselors out there.
Many people just go out and find whatever counselor they can, don’t make progress, and then write off therapy as ineffective. If possible, try to find a counselor specializing in the problem you’re trying to work through.
A good place to find a counselor or therapist who meets your specific needs is the website BetterHelp.com – they ask some initial questions that help to match you with the most suitable professionals on their platform. And you can talk to that professional via phone, video, or instant message from wherever you are in the world.
Click here to get professional help today, or to learn more about the services BetterHelp.com offer.
A support group can also be a valuable way to navigate your denial. Just being around other people that understand can make you feel far less alone and empowered to confront the issue. Social connection is a powerful thing on the road to healing.
Still, if you want to try to go it on your own, you may try an approach like this:
1. Consider what you might be afraid of or denying.
You’re not in denial about any old thing, but do you know precisely what you are in denial about?
For instance, maybe you have an illness of some sort. Are you in denial about being ill? No? Then are you in denial about the severity of that illness? No, ok. But are you in denial about the likelihood that the illness is going to limit the kind of life you lead or even how long that life is likely to be?
Be as precise as possible about the thing or things you are denying.
2. Consider the problems that may arise from living in denial.
Though you may be able to deny a particular problem or event, it’s impossible to forever deny the real-life consequences of that thing.
Did you lose your mom recently? You can try as hard as you like to deny that, but doing so may put real strain on your relationships with other family members who want to talk about her death or deal with things like funeral arrangements or inheritance.
Or, as alluded to earlier, denying the existence or severity of a health problem can mean it gets worse or even becomes untreatable if left too long.
3. Allow yourself time to think about why you deny the circumstance.
What are your reasons for denying the thing? What are you hoping to gain by doing so?
Perhaps your life is already stressful enough and you just don’t have the emotional bandwidth to be able to process something heavy right now. So, you’re in denial about it as a means to delay having to deal with it.
Or maybe it is purely to avoid the pain and hurt that will come from facing the thing in all its reality. Even if you rationally know something has happened, you can avoid its full effects by distracting yourself in one of a million different ways.
4. Consider what irrational beliefs may be preventing your acceptance.
People deny things for all sorts of reasons, and those reasons often relate to a person’s beliefs.
Examples of these beliefs include:
“I don’t need to accept it because it will sort itself out on its own.” – While this can sometimes be true, very often the thing will need your input to find a resolution. If it is not resolved, it will likely linger in the background and may even get worse until you decide to act.
“The pain would be too much for me to bear.” – People often have far more strength and resolve than they give themselves credit for. This belief may, however, be rational if the person has mental health issues or is already facing incredible adversity and devastation. In which case, external help should be sought.
“Someone else will fix this issue for me.” – Is there any basis for this belief or are you just hoping beyond hope that someone else will recognize the issue and take time out of their life to address it on your behalf?”
“Bad things always happen to me, so what’s the use in trying to make things better?” – This is a victim mentality that might be based on self-esteem and self-worth issues that skew your view of events in your life. Firstly, the reality of your life might not be nearly as bad as you believe. What’s more, while denial allows you to avoid acting, if you just put some time and effort in, you might be able to enjoy better outcomes.
5. Journaling out the situation and your feelings about it can help.
When something exists purely in your mind, it is far easier to turn a blind eye to it. That’s where journaling can come in handy.
When you sit down and actually write out the issue and your thoughts about the issue, it forces you to take those first vital steps to acknowledging both that the issue exists and that you need to do something about it.
And we would highly encourage you to write in a physical journal with a pen rather than a digital journal. The act of writing is far different and in many ways more effective than typing on a screen or keyboard.
6. Talk about it with someone you trust.
The moment the words pass your lips that confirm the existence and severity of an issue you are facing is the moment you begin to stop denying it.
If you can bring yourself to talk about something that you have thus far been avoiding, you begin to challenge and change the beliefs you have about it. You might not do a complete 180 the first time you bring something up, but you will start the process that ends with you accepting that there is a problem that needs to be dealt with.
Just then make sure you don’t ruminate on the problem over and over while continuing to avoid dealing with it. That’s just as unhealthy as denying the existence of the problem in the first place.
Talk about it with the aim of putting real-world actions into place to help resolve the problem, or to help you process the emotional elements of the issue so that you can begin to let go of it.
7. If that doesn’t work, seek additional help through counseling or therapy.
If you are really struggling to confront the thing you’re in denial about, do speak to a professional about it as we talk about above.
How do I help someone with their denial?
Sometimes it’s frustrating when your loved one is experiencing their own denial, particularly in issues with mental illness or substance abuse.
Sometimes the problem can be so severe that it negatively affects your life. In that case, it’s generally best for you to seek the help of a therapist to construct boundaries and find a way to get through the situation. You will want professional support because those situations can end up violent.
You may feel like you want to force the person through their denial to confront reality, but this is often a bad choice. People will often come through their denial in their own time. The brain typically knows what to do to get through things; we just interrupt the process a lot.
After all, who really has the time to sit around and be sad for a while? To cry? To be angry? You’ve got stuff to do! Gotta get to work! That laundry isn’t going to do itself.
As a result, we interrupt our process of acceptance and healing.
That’s also why trying to force someone else through their own process doesn’t work. We impose what may be good for us on someone else, but we don’t always ask if that is good for the other person.
Do offer to listen to the person. Sometimes all a person needs to move through their denial is to be heard. Some people struggle so much and have had no one to just listen to them. You don’t have to try to fix the problem.
And fair warning, it may be an uncomfortable conversation. It’s okay to be uncomfortable. Just keep going through it until the conversation is over.
You may also want to suggest the person look into professional support once you’re done. However, do not try to force the person to seek help, whether it’s counseling or for medical issues. They will likely get defensive, angry, and you’ll lose any progress you made.
You can also offer to go with them to their first appointments so they can get more comfortable with the idea.
People often use denial to avoid their fears instead of confronting them.
Denial isn’t always an unhealthy thing if it’s temporary. But if it lasts longer than six months, it would be a good idea to seek out professional support.
You may also like:
- How To Accept What Is (Without Surrendering Your Power): 10 Tips
- 12 Radical Acceptance Coping Statements To Deal With Difficult Emotions
- 20 Healthy Coping Skills: Strategies To Help With Negative Emotions
- How To Let Go Of The Past: 16 No Nonsense Tips!
- 8 Reasons Why Time Doesn’t Heal All Wounds