Denial in Psychology: Hiding From Yourself
It’s not uncommon for humans to fight back negative thoughts and emotions that seem to upset us or make us anxious. A lot of times, this is in an attempt to protect our minds from an ensuing instinctual tension or conflict. We may have different names we use to describe it, psychologists call it denial.
Denial is one of the defense mechanisms in psychology described by Sigmund Freud’s daughter, Anna Freud. Defense mechanisms are responses to thoughts or feelings that potentially stress our ego - the part of our personalities that guide our behaviour.
Denial underlies many other defense mechanisms including repression, in which our negative thoughts and emotions are suppressed; and projection, in which these thoughts and emotions are attributed to someone else.
Denial is what an alcoholic uses to minimize the harmful potential of alcohol consumption as he continues to drink; it is also what an individual uses when they say “we only live once” to make them feel better after almost maxing out their credit card on a shopping spree.
Basically, in denial, an individual rejects the facts of a situation, ignoring or minimizing any potential consequences of that situation. They block these facts from their conscious awareness, to protect them from anxiety that might naturally result.
Denial often develops in childhood in response to negative experiences. For instance, enduring parental neglect may make a child learn to hide their emotions. Also, to suppress thoughts and emotions of previous heartbreak, a person may choose to close their eyes to their new partner’s affair when they notice.
Different Forms of Denial
There are three forms of denial; simple denial, minimization, and transference denial.
Simple denial happens when one disregards the existence or the apparent consequence of a situation and believing the opposite. For instance, a person finds her husband cheating continuously on her and says “he probably does not mean to.” Also, the wife of an alcoholic may deny that he engages in harmful consumption of alcohol and may just believe her husband “just loves to drink”.
Sometimes denial is not so direct; it may involve downplaying a situation or its potential consequence. For instance, a person consistently performs poorly at work and says “they’ll probably not fire me, everyone might just overlook this.” This is called minimization.
Transference denial, also called projection, acknowledges the existence and consequence of a situation but wrongfully blames someone else for it. For example, a student blames his poor performance on his teachers. Another example, an employee who constantly comes to work late - when others come early - blaming his employer for not promoting him.
Why does Denial Matter?
You may find that you are guilty of one form of denial or the other, but this is not out of the ordinary. However, using this defense mechanism continuously means you won’t change your behavior when you might need to; for instance, you may continue to resume work late or ignore your husband’s extramarital activities without confronting him.
Furthermore, denial may enable on-going addictions and hurtful behaviour that ultimately lead to personal and relationship problems. If you find that denial is affecting certain aspects of your life negatively, it may be time to seek help.
Different types of therapy can help you overcome denial. These include psychoanalytical therapy, existential therapy, and cognitive therapy. Psychoanalytical therapy helps you confront denial and choose to change your behaviour accordingly; existential therapy helps you see your denial as a part of your perspective; while cognitive therapy helps you modify your thoughts to make you handle stress better rather than rely on denial.
We all have found ourselves living in denial of a current or past event. While this is a normal part of our psychology, the best possible action is to face reality; accept the facts of that negative event and use it to modify your behaviour going forward. If you would like to see one of our therapists please contact us on 08 9467 2272.