Defense Mechanisms II: Denial

Like projection and repression, denial is one of those psychological concepts that most people understand to some degree. It originated in the psychodynamic theories of Sigmund Freud, and his daughter Anna Freud wrote about it at length in The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense.  Today,  virtually all psychotherapists recognize its existence, whether or not they regard it as clinically significant.  With the popularization of her Five Stages of Grief, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross raised the public profile of denial (the first of those stages) and the prevalence of 12-step programs has also promoted awareness of the concept:  a basic step in addressing addiction is to admit that you are, in fact, an addict, rather than to remain in denial about it.  The concept has become so much a part of our cultural knowledge that even  kids nowadays make joking reference to it:  The teenage son of a friend once told her (I no longer remember the occasion), “You are on that long river called Denial.”  Search that phrase on Google and you’ll get millions of results.

“You are in denial” is something most people have said or heard at one point or another in their lifetimes.  The expression generally refers to the denial of a fact.  “You’re in denial — can’t you see she has no interest you?”  Or:  “He is never going to leave his wife — you’re in denial.”  The concept is a simple one.  An unacceptable fact exists, one that conflicts with our wishes or beliefs, and so we deny that it is true.  We may also deny a feeling, especially if we’ve received cultural or parental messages that tell us such a feeling is unacceptable.   As a result of internalizing those messages, we may hide the existence of those feelings even from ourselves.  “I do not feel angry.” Or:  “No, I don’t hate my sister.”

As with most defenses, the existence of a conflict often motivates denial:   a fact conflicts with our wishes, or a feeling conflicts with our values and so we deny it.  Such denial can occur on the individual or group level, as with individual Holocaust deniers and whole countries that insist it never occurred. The wish to avoid pain also drives us to use denial.  Feelings of guilt for something that occurred may be unbearable to us so we deny responsibility for it.  I believe this variety of denial can also occur on group and national levels:  unbearable guilt surely plays some part in Holocaust denial and other instances of genocide.

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Empathy vs Sympathy in Psychodynamic Psychotherapy

In my last post, I discussed the role of empathy in promoting moral behavior; it set me to thinking more about empathy and, in particular, the way people often use that word interchangeably with the word sympathy when they actually describe different experiences.  If you’re already clear on that difference, bear with me.

Here are two dictionary definitions from Merriam-Webster:


“the act or capacity of entering into or sharing the feelings or interests of another”


“the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts and experience of another of either the past of present without having the feelings, thoughts and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner”

In my view, the distinction between empathy vs sympathy involves the difference between entering into and sharing those feelings that another person may have verbally and intentionally expressed vs intuiting something unspoken, of which the other person may sometimes be entirely unaware.  I often find that clients want me to sympathize with what they’re telling me, when in fact, they need me to empathize with and help them become aware of something unconscious they’re afraid to know.

I gave a good example in my prior post.  My tearful client Stephanie related the story of mean children on the playground at school, torturing an injured bird they had found; she wanted me to share in and sympathize with her expressed feelings of horror at their cruelty, thus validating her self-image as a “good person” in contrast to the other “bad” children.   As I said, I found those tears “emotionally unpersuasive”; I did not sympathize.

Instead, what I felt, though I didn’t fully understand it at that point, was an inkling of her unconscious rage.   I felt it in my body and face; I couldn’t articulate it even to myself, but I had a sense that Stephanie unconsciously felt something quite different from the feelings she apparently wanted me to share.  Such intuitions are the bedrock of psychotherapy from a psychodynamic perspective and not terribly scientific.  In my training, teachers and individual supervisors took this for granted, generally validating such emotional perceptions and treating them as “facts” to be considered along with the other material brought by my clients; but you’re often met with polite skepticism if you express this view to lay people, or even to other psychotherapists who practice in different modalities.

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Can’t or Won’t?

Does each of us always do the very best he or she can?

Over the weekend, my good friend Sue J. and I got into one of our regular “debates”, this one about whether people always do their emotional best — that is, do they always try as hard as they are able, at any given moment, to master their impulses and behave in the most constructive way possible?  Sue insists that “We’re all doing the best we can … and we could always do better.”  I disagree, not only because the statement is logically problematic but because it flies in the face of my personal experience.

Let’s begin with the logic.  If one can always do better, then how can one be making the best possible effort right now?  Unless we entirely dismiss this statement as illogical, we have to assume it implies a process of growth where each step of the way always represents one’s personal best, with expectation for improvement rising exactly as much as one’s growing capacity to meet it.  As a logical proposition, however, it still leaves something to be desired.    From my point of view, it sounds sentimental, like saying that human nature is inherently good (and never mind the atrocities occurring every minute of every day around the world).  If someone were to argue instead that people are usually trying to do their best, I wouldn’t put up much of a fight; but insisting on always makes it impossible to evaluate anyone’s behavior or render judgment about it.  This was your best effort, but that was not.

Judgment, of course, is the problem with the original question.  If I state (which I do) that people aren’t always doing the best they can, it implies that I’m making a judgment about them and their psychological efforts (which I am).   In the course of our debate, Sue accused me of being “judgmental”; I felt, for possibly the thousandth time, that our culture has lost the distinction between exercising judgment and being judgmental.  The very act of “passing judgment” will bring denunciation down upon your head.  People will accuse you of being “holier than thou,” or arrogant for presuming to judge other people.  It seems that for most of us, any kind of judgment is the equivalent of being judgmental.  The problem also seems to be with the word itself:  most of us can’t hear “judgment” without investing it with harshness.  My friend Marla Estes suggests I use a less charged word, such as “discernment”, to describe the process of making distinctions.

In my earlier post on narcissism vs. authentic self-esteem, I mentioned an incident where I felt badly about myself because of poor choices I’d made in a social situation, knowing I could have done better.  I’ve had this experience repeatedly in my life, and in those instances, I don’t necessarily feel harsh or judgmental; I often feel disappointed in myself because I haven’t lived up to my own expectations.  Usually, it’s because I didn’t want to exert the necessary effort.  I took the easier route, by doing what felt better in the moment, instead of restraining myself and earning my self-respect in the long run.  To me, saying that everyone is always doing their best implies a kind of relativism without authentic standards, since it has been decided in advance, by definition, that the standard has been met.  The standard = the behavior.

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The Cycle of Crime and Punishment in Psychotherapy

I’m sure my fellow psychotherapists have had this same experience:  a client comes into session after having done or said something that they previously vowed not to do, or which they feel somehow damages them; they are burdened with horrible guilt.  Maybe she was trying hard not to use drugs and slipped the night before, or maybe he slept with his old girlfriend even though he knows she’s bad for him.  It could be something as simple as going off a diet.  During session, they go on about how guilty they feel and spend a lot of time berating themselves in a punitive way.  As therapists, we may try to help them understand the reasons for their behavior, or make a connection to some emotional stress that played a role.  We may feel compassion for their suffering, bringing real insight to their psychological and emotional motivations.  Several weeks later, they repeat the same behavior and return to session in the same guilty and self-punitive mindset, as if the previous session had never taken place.

My own therapist referred to this as “the cycle of crime and punishment.”  I find it a very useful concept that helps to explain why some clients don’t benefit from insight and understanding.  It’s as if they view their backsliding as a crime that must be severely punished in a self-flagellating way; once they have undergone said punishment, however, they feel that they’ve expunged all guilt for their crime and regard the subject as closed, in the past.  It is exactly analogous to our penal system, which inflicts punishment on those who commit crimes but regards them as completely free once they have paid their debt to society. The psychological cycle of crime and punishment prevents people from learning from their experience and condemns them to repeat the past, just as the over-emphasis on retribution (as opposed to rehabilitation) in our penal system does little to help incarcerated criminals avoid returning to a life of crime after their release.

Such clients are trapped in their cycle of crime and punishment because they don’t know how to learn from their experience.  They usually come from extremely impoverished backgrounds.  You might think the parents would have been harsh and perfectionistic, and sometimes this is the case; often it’s simply that they have few psychological resources and little to pass along in the way of wisdom or emotional capacity.  They generally model primitive reactions to turmoil — rage, denial, projection, etc. — and the emotional environment feels dangerously confusing to their children.  For some people who come from such families, a harsh, exacting conscience pulls them out of the chaos, painting some very black-and-white lines in order to alleviate the confusion about what’s good and what’s bad in their world.  Sometimes they can be sharply moralistic because it is their “morality” that saves them from the mess of their childhood.

While this kind of morality has its emotional survival value, people burdened with it lack the genuine capacity to bear with and understand their own experience.  They only know how to condemn it, keeping it under lock and key.  Eventually, under extreme pressure, the forbidden impulse slips out:  crime inevitably leads to punishment.  I think you can see how Catholicism might complicate this picture.  With its system of sins and penance, that religion leaves little room for an understanding of the emotional factors that might lead people to “sin” and simply specifies the means to atone for those sins, regarded as inevitable.

In working with such clients, it’s crucial to help them see and understand this dynamic.  They need to see how they allow themselves only two options:  complete success or utter failure.  No gray areas, no step-by-step growth.  That’s actually the easier part.  Then the work must help them to develop the capacity to learn from experience.  As that’s a rather large subject in itself, I’ll save it for another post.

Finding Your Own Way:

Are you the sort of person who beats yourself up when you make a mistake or slip in some way?  Do you find yourself getting extremely angry with yourself for things you do but then committing the same “crimes” again and again?  Examine your system of personal expectations.  You might find that your particular standards reflect very little understanding of the psychological and emotional reasons for doing what you do.  You probably expect yourself simply to “be different” or “stop behaving that way.”  Even if you do have some insight and understanding, you may have no idea how to make use of it; you may simply expect that insight = change and you’re a failure if it doesn’t.

As I’ve discussed in my piece on self-criticism, this kind of conscience reflects an expectation that one shouldn’t have to struggle in order to learn and grow.  To break free of this cycle, you’ll need (for starters) to confront your unrealistic expectations and come to terms with the difficulty of genuine growth. While it’s painful to suffer from this kind of self-punishment, it’s also extremely difficult to take small steps, to recognize and value little changes along the way.  It may take years to grow the kind of emotional capacity you need, possibly in therapy.  Instead, you may simply insist that you “get over” your problem rather than growing slowly and imperfectly over time.

Think again about the penal system analogy.  It’s not enough to do your time; you have to develop some new skills in there or you’ll simply repeat the same crimes once you’ve paid off your debt to society.

The Pleasures of Solitude

In my post on grief and gratitude, I discussed some of the emotions that come to the fore in the termination phase of psychotherapy.  With the client I described in that post, another issue has recently become prominent:   the loneliness of personal responsibility balanced by the pleasures of solitude.

Diane began a recent Monday session by telling me she had the strong urge to fill me in on all the details of her weekend, to spill out her experience in a mindless way very familiar to us.  Throughout her treatment, she would communicate in that fashion because she wanted to feel that I was a part of her experience, as if I were there at her side going through life with her, always available to process that experience and to do her thinking for her.  She knew she felt a little angry and rebellious, as if to spill all those details would be an act of defiance.   In recent months, we’ve focused on the need to communicate in a different mode:   instead of unloading her experience in a mindless way, she needed to digest that experience first and decide which details should be communicated, what she intended to say and what she felt to be the crucial issues.  In other words, as the end of her treatment approaches, the responsibility to think for herself has shifted increasingly onto her own shoulders.

During that Monday session, she went on to discuss an article she’d read, about the rise of binge drinking among middle-aged professionals.  It made her recognize that her alcohol use had been creeping up lately as she faced various stressful situations in her life; she felt the need to get it more under control. This topic reminded her of early struggles with substance abuse when we first started working together. In those days, she used to carry a moralistic and disapproving “Joe” around in her mind; he held her to very harsh standards with no areas of gray, banning drug and alcohol use entirely, and came down hard when she slipped.  She often felt resentful toward this “Joe”, as if she were a teenager and “Joe” the unreasonably strict parent; over time, however, she came to obey his rules.  Now, she said, even though “Joe” still appeared in her thoughts, she didn’t believe in him in the same way.  She’d come to feel that the issues weren’t so black-and-white.

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