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?