When life goes wrong, it is not always easy to accept failure, defeat or loss. Sometimes we turn to denial as a defense mechanism to protect ourselves or avoid a reality that is too overwhelming for us or that we are not able to cope with.
Defense mechanisms, a term introduced by Freud in 1894, are “Defensive formations to deal with ideas and affects that we find painful and unbearable.” These are psychological strategies that we use unconsciously to protect ourselves from the anguish that generate certain thoughts, feelings or impulses that are unacceptable to us. In practice, they are a strategy to protect us. However, that does not mean that defense mechanisms are adaptive, at least in the long term.
What is denial as a defense mechanism?
Anna Freud was the one who investigated in greater depth the mechanism of denial. She considered it to be a primitive defense mechanism that triggers the immature mind when it conflicts with reality or with itself. By denying reality or the impulses, it is as if they do not exist. However, denial robs us of the ability to learn from reality and develop the necessary resources to cope adaptively with our environment.
In the case of mature minds, denial as a defense mechanism is often activated in the face of death or particularly shocking trauma. In fact, psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross considered denial to be the first of the five stages that a terminally ill patient goes through. It is also one of the first stages of grief when we lose a loved one.
How does the denial mechanism work?
When an unwanted change occurs, such as trauma, the first impulse is usually not to believe what happened. In a mature mind, that denial acts as a protective mechanism to give you the time you need to restructure the psychological resources necessary to deal with the event without turning into psychological trauma.
Denial turns these drives into a subconscious pressure. Reminders of the event, emotions, or associated thoughts are suppressed. When we are ready, that content emerges, we accept and integrate it into our life history or as part of our “self.” The problem begins when these contents are not solved, but remain repressed, generating an extra psychological tension. So we enter a dysfunctional cycle.
The most common signs that can indicate that you have activated a denial mechanism are:
• You refuse to talk about the problem or conflict, even though it has a significant impact on your life.
• You look for ways to justify your behavior or feelings that are not entirely true.
• You blame other people for the problem or resort to external factors to avoid taking responsibility.
• You put off making decisions to resolve the conflict for no good reason, just out of fear or discomfort.
• You do everything not to think about the problem, conflict, or stressful event.
• You feel distressed, tense or sad, although you do not know exactly the origin of that feeling.
The different types of denial we put into practice
• Denial of the fact. In this case, the person usually resorts to lies to deny the facts or omit the parts that are painful or unacceptable. In a love breakup, for example, you may refuse to acknowledge the fact that your partner no longer loves you, inventing alternative explanations for his or her behavior or raising false hopes.
• Denial of responsibility. There are people who escape their responsibilities by putting into practice different mechanisms of denial. Blaming others is one of the most common, but they can also resort to more or less acceptable justifications that allow them to escape the consequences of their actions, mixing this defense mechanism with rationalization. In other cases, the chosen mechanism is minimization, which consists of trying to make their actions appear less harmful than they actually were, thus denying part of their responsibility.
• Denial of impact. Many people have trouble managing their emotions, so it is not unusual for them to suppress them. The denial of the impact occurs, for example, when a person faces a significant and painful loss saying that he or she feels good. Try to deny the emotional impact of what happened so he or she doesn’t have to deal with it. In practice, he or she tries to appear stronger than is by denying the emotions that is experiencing.
• Denial of conscience. It is probably the most difficult denial mechanism to detect and eradicate since the person denies completely the fact or the impulse by expelling it from his or her consciousness. There is not only a denial of the facts but also of their impact and the level of responsibility. In fact, it is a common mechanism in addictions, so that the addicted person refuses to acknowledge that has a problem.
Why is it important to get rid of the denial mechanism?
Life can be very challenging. It presents us with problems and conflicts that are difficult to solve. However, when we start from a radical acceptance we can face the circumstances in a more adaptive way and learn from them.
On the other hand, denying what is happening will not solve the problem, it will only hide it. In many cases that denial keeps the problem growing, adding more layers of pain and new conflicts. When we do not process what happened, that content will remain active in a part of our subconscious generating anguish, so that we cannot really get rid of its influence completely.
Using denial as a defense mechanism is like hiding dust under the rug. It may be a temporary solution, but it is not the best and, of course, it is not final because at some point we will have to vacuum that dust.
Therefore, using this defense mechanism implies disabling ourselves. It is true that we partially protect ourselves from pain, but we also take away from us the power to apply the necessary changes that allow us to get out of that distressing state.
This does not mean that we should be in a hurry to heal since, sometimes, denial can protect us from an emotional impact too strong. However, we must make sure that we do not spend too much time in that denial phase. We need to become aware of what is wrong and ask ourselves what we can do to remedy it.
Dorpat, T.L. (1983) The cognitive arrest hypothesis of denial. The International Journal of Psychoanalysis; 64(1): 47–58.
Linn, L. (1953) The Role of Perception in the Mechanism of Denial.
Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association; 1(4): 690-705.