Defence mechanisms are unconscious forms of self-deception we use to avoid anxiety and emotional pain, or to ensure we are ‘acceptable’ to others.
Denial is a very popular defence mechanism. It is when we act as if an event, a thought, or an emotion never happened. We do this even if there is obvious evidence that it did, and often protest the opposite.
Denial is connected to other defence mechanisms. These includerepression (banning stressful things from our memories) and projection (refusing responsibility for thoughts, feelings and actions by attributing then to someone else).
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So if someone I know won’t see the truth, they are in denial?
It would be easy here to say denial is about denying ‘the truth’. But ‘truth’ is actually a perspective. If two people, for example, at the same meal, one might say it was amazing, the other that it was terrible.
So denial is more about avoiding facts and outcomes. It would be denying that the meal was caloric and might lead to weight gain, or claiming, even against strict doctors orders against its ingredients, that ‘it can’t hurt’.
As a Western society we practise mass denial. We live our lives as if all is fine when we are taking actions that damage the environment and when other countries are at war. This article, however, focuses on personal denial over societal denial.
The different forms of denial in psychology
In its purest form of ‘simple denial’ , the process of denial is unconscious. The person using denial really has convinced themselves of the opposite to what the facts say and what everyone else tells them. They have ‘turned a blind eye’, as the saying goes.
An example of simple denial would be the partner of an alcoholic who truly believes her partner ‘just likes a good time.’
Sometimes denial is more conscious, with the difficult situation admitted to, but downplayed. This is called ‘minimising’. An example would be the same person saying, ‘he does drink too much, but he’s never mean or horrible when he’s drunk so what’s the problem’.
The third form of denial is called transference denial. This is when the fact is admitted to, but the person will deny their responsibility. “Yes, he might be an alcoholic, but it’s not up to me to say anything.”
The symptoms of being in denial
people often tell you that you are in denial, in the clouds, unrealistic, or a dreamer
you do the same things again and again expecting a different result
Defence mechanisms might seem crazy, but at the same time, they have a logical intention. They help us avoid emotional pain and anxiety.
Often the decision to use a defence mechanism is made in childhood, when perhaps our options are so limited it seems the only way to survive.
If a child, for example, lives with an abusive parent, it’s not like he or she can go out and get a job and take care of themselves. They are trapped living with that parent until perhaps someone calls social services. So perhaps they need to deny the reality of the situation as a way to keep going. Or if a child lives with a parent who punishes them for being sad and angry, they will learn quickly to hide their emotions.
The problem is of course that as adults we have more options. We can actually find effective solutions instead of live in denial. If we are being bullied at work, we can talk to HR, or file a complaint. If we have sadness and anger, we can talk to friends or a counsellor.
But if our brain was trained to resort to denial as a child, and we haven’t examined this habit and worked to change it, such as in therapy? We keep using the same defence mechanism, even when it means our life stays stuck in unhealthy places.
In summary, try not to beat yourself up for having defence mechanisms. At some point, they were the best option available.
How can therapy help me if my denial is holding me back?