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.

Whenever we employ denial, whether of a feeling or a fact, we are always denying our own awareness.  In other words, through this defense mechanism, we refuse to recognize what we actually know to be true, thus splitting our awareness and negating part of it.  (Putting it that way makes it sounds like a conscious decision; on the contrary, all defense mechanisms occur unconsciously, outside of our awareness — obviously, for if we knew we were doing it, the defense wouldn’t work.)  Here’s a great example:  In the 1986 movie Heartburn, the character played by Meryl Streep goes to her hairdresser one day; in listening to a story about another woman who didn’t recognize the telltale signs that her husband was having an affair, Streep’s character gasps with a sudden horrified realization:  on some level, the awareness had been growing that husband Mark was cheating on her but she’d been insisting to herself and to other people that her marriage was a happy one; when she heard the hairdresser’s story, the defense broke down and the painful truth she’d tried to avoid burst into consciousness.

Psychotherapists deal with denial in a variety of ways.  Cognitive-behavioralists would avoid confronting it directly, instead teaching more effective behaviors for coping.  In contrast, someone trained in the school of thought I grew up in might address it head on, then watch the ways the client will defend against awareness.  For instance, I might tell someone, “Contrary to all the loving things you say about your mom, on another level, you’re absolutely furious with her.”  When denial is strong, the client almost never accepts such a statement the first time it’s made.  He might ignore it and go on as before; or she might express anger with me for saying something “completely untrue.”  Then I would point out that he ignored what I had said, or I might address that anger and wonder aloud why she’s having such a strong reaction.  A less confrontative approach would involve waiting until the client is closer to becoming aware of those feelings him- or herself, and then bring them to light.  The first approach involves exposing the defense and then addressing the resistance that results; the second approach seeks to avoid stirring up such resistance by waiting until the defense has weakened.

Like other defenses, denial also has its normal and useful functions.  For instance, I believe many of us deny that we are, in fact, actually going to die. If I’m honest with myself, I know that I don’t really believe it — at least not all the time.  If I did, I might have a hard time going on with my life and pursuing my goals.  What’s the point of doing anything if I’m just going to die at the end of it all? I believe the denial of death lies behind the belief in an afterlife; in addition to its functions discussed in my post about love and hatred, religion may also provide us with ready-made defenses against unbearable truth.  On some level, most people know the truth.  If they really believed they were going to Heaven, death would inspire no fear whatsoever; but subscribing to the myth offered by their religion allows them to deny the fact of death and the unbearable anxiety stirred up by it.

Finding Your Own Way:

Do you believe you’re going to die?  I mean, do you really believe it?  How often do you think about your own death?  Do you believe in an after-life?  If you do, are you nonetheless afraid of dying?  Why?  How much genuine consolation does the idea of Heaven hold for you?

As with most defense mechanisms, it’s difficult to recognize denial in ourselves.  Instead of being conscious of the denied fact or feeling, we’d more likely be aware of its opposite.  Do you ever notice that you’re telling yourself something repeatedly?  In the post that I wrote about splitting, I spoke of my gay friend who, before he came out, was always telling himself how glad he was that he’d never turn out to be homosexual.  Though I used it as an example of splitting, it also illustrates the process of denial at work.  Do you have any such examples from your own life, where for a long time you told yourself something that later turned out to false?  On some level, did you know it all along?

Joe is the author and the owner of AfterPsychotherapy.com, one of the leading online mental health resources on the internet. Be sure to connect with him on Google+ and Linkedin.

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15 Responses to Defense Mechanisms II: Denial

  1. Mary Bast says:

    Thanks so much for this column and especially your discussions (so far) of defense mechanisms. Having had a bout with breast cancer in December 2010 I’ve had to face my own denial of death. Even though my risk of breast cancer recurring is low, I can no longer convince myself that I’m immortal. I’ve held the intention to follow my own version of the Buddhist meditation on death by seeking books with a death motif, but I find it’s no longer necessary to search for the topic – it’s everywhere. As with the wife who “suddenly” sees all the clues that her husband’s been unfaithful (that happened with me, also), I see the reality of death everywhere. As you mentioned, facing the reality of death ALL the time can make it difficult to enjoy the life I have; that realization can also make it more likely that I enjoy the life I have. Right now, I’m about fifty-fifty. :-)

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      I tell myself that facing the reality of death all the time should make every moment more precious; but as you say, the reality is sometimes just the opposite. I guess 50/50 is the best we can hope for.

  2. JB says:

    I’ve come to believe that death is frightening because 1) it’s a huge change 2) we have little or no control over it 3) it will come more or less at an unexpected time 4) we have no certain, straight forward knowledge of what happens afterward. (Many religions teach about an after life, but Christianity at least is very vague except for the assertion that there is life after death.) Any event in life that has change, lack of control, unexpected timing and outcome associated with it is going to be dreaded by most people. Add to that the expectation of physical pain. Who would look forward to an inevitable event like that?

    Wow. I read that over, and realized that it also describes the process of having and raising children. Do with that what you will.

    Back to death. Call me strange. I am comforted by the idea that my life will end one day. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not courting death. I’ve never been suicidal or clinically depressed. I have a lot to live for. It’s just that I have lived through hell on earth, so I don’t fear the process of death or the unknown of the after life (if there is indeed one). Neither can be worse than what I’ve already experienced.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      I’d have to agree with you. Change is always frightening and the pain that so often accompanies death is terrifying. I’m not sure that this entirely explains why people who believe in an afterlife also fear death but it sure explains a lot of it. I’m sorry that your life has been full of so much pain and I can understand why the idea of death might offer some comfort; do you think that you’d feel the same way if your life had involved less suffering?

  3. Marla Estes says:

    Joe, what a clear and accessible exploration of this defense. Defense mechanisms are the glue that hold the false self together…by “finding our own ways” with them, we get closer and closer to authenticity and to reclaiming so many parts of ourselves and our vitality.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      Well said, Marla. That is the problem with defenses — they have their constructive uses but they do sap our vitality.

  4. Kim says:

    Mary and Joseph: beautifully put, both of you! And I believe that if we practice some sort of meditation on the impermance of everything, we could possibly reach 51% – 49% at any given moment, and at that point it’s possible we are ROCKIN at enjoying life and living the best, most present life! :) I utilize so many of your ideas and experience from your posts in an IOP program that I co-facilitate – - – thank you Joseph for all your efforts, sharing, the work you’ve done. I appreciate you! If you ever do any seminars, teachings for therapists, I work at a clinic with 40 of them who all need and/or could use inspiration, CE points, refreshers, reminders, and a bit of fun which I always sense in your posts.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      Kim, I’m so glad to hear this! And I’m glad the “bit of fun” comes through. I think having a sense of humor, and a sense of humor about oneself in particular, always helps. Life is difficult and laughter surely makes the burden lighter.

  5. JB says:

    Joe, you wonder “why people who believe in an afterlife also fear death.” I don’t see any inconsistency, because from my experience, deep fears are not controlled by the conscious mind. I don’t mean to imply that this disconnect is evidence of non-belief. It might be, but it doesn’t have to be. Because a central tenant of Christianity is that no one, not even someone who has devoted his/her life to God in all external ways, can be sure of going to heaven. The Pharisees in the New Testament are examples of that. Judgment is based on faith (which no one knows but God, and the believer if she can strip away her own defenses to know for sure) not works (words and behavior). In other words, intentions (the state of the heart and soul) are what matter. External behaviors come from intentions, so there is a connection, but it’s not 100% because people can lie to themselves and others. God knows no one can have pure intentions and behavior that reflect love and generosity all the time. That’s where Jesus comes in. It is enough to realize your own limitations, and ask God for help and forgiveness. It’s humbling and yes, scary. (Disclaimer: ‘Faith’ vs ‘works’ as I’ve described it somewhat badly here, is hotly debated by average Christians and scholarly theologians. This is my understanding.)

    You also asked if I felt I would find death comforting if my life had been less hard. No, I doubt it. I think I would be like most people, and try not think about death much. My faith affects how I think about death now, but I lost my fear of death before I found God.

  6. Anon says:

    Hi Doc. I’ve learned some interesting things from your blog. I’d like to make a comment about the layout instead of the content.

    On any page that has a list of articles, for example the main page which lists most recent articles or a list of posts by category, if I click “Continue reading ->” beneath the snippet then I’m taking to a page with a slightly longer snippet of the article and I need to click another “Continue reading ->” link to get the full thing. Perhaps the second step is superfluous?

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      You’re not the first person to draw my attention to this annoying feature; give me a few days and I’ll what I can do about it.

  7. Greg says:

    I think fear is not a one-dimensional thing. I do believe in an afterlife, and I suppose I fear death in some ways but not in others.

    The belief that believing in an afterlife is a simple example of denial, triggered by fear of death, seems simplistic to me. For just one thing, it is itself a belief – based on the root belief that “no afterlife” is the “default” position and that therefore we would need some sort of etiology of how belief in an afterlife could come about.

    Maybe belief in an afterlife is really the default position, and we need some sort of etiology for how lack of belief in an afterlife comes about? :)

  8. Don says:

    How do you tell the difference between denial as a defense mechanism and simply denying something that you know or believe to be false?

    For example, if somebody came up to me and said “You painted my house green”, even though I’ve never painted a house in my life, what would you call it if I said “No, I did not paint your house green”, and how does that relate to, say, a heroin addict saying “No, I’m not a heroin addict”?

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      One would be conscious; the other would be largely unconscious. Heroin addicts (and alcoholics, too) have an amazing ability to NOT know what seems obviously true to everyone else around them. They’re not simply pretending.

  9. Jerry says:

    I find your assertion about the afterlife and fear quite interesting. I actually watched my paternal grandmother die last night. I am a Christian pastor in training. I was amazed at how little I actually fear death. I’m not afraid of where I’m going, nor for her, so all I really felt was sadness for all of the folks who lost their loved one. So in short, I didn’t find the fear true in myself.

    I suppose that’s not totally true. The thought of a painful, prolonged, or otherwise nasty death does cause some fear, but not even that much. Being 35 might have something to do with that.

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