Dear Dr. Alasko: One of my family members likes to constantly accuse others of "being in denial.” When I question him on this, his explanations don't make much sense. I believe that either something is true or it’s not. So does denial really exist? And if it does, how does it work?
Dear Reader: Yes, denial (of reality) exists. But why? And how can human beings gifted with the ability to analyze complex information ignore facts directly in front of their eyes? And refusing to see it even when ignoring the information might be disastrous?
Let’s start by looking your root premise. It’s an over-simplification to believe that something is either true or false. Why? Because humans experience a range of powerful and complex emotions, such as desire, greed, pride, revenge, need for status, shame, humiliation, etc. These emotions exert a strong influence over a person's ability to interpret facts.
Now, our overall progress as a society is predicated on our learning how to control these emotions and make decisions based on facts. However, fact-based decision-making hasn’t made as much progress in our society as it deserves because many decisions are overwhelmed by those emotions. Add in other psychological dynamics such as ideology (which substitutes belief for facts), inertia (change requires significant energy), momentum (the desire to will obstacles out of our way), impulsiveness (wanting it now!) and stubbornness (no one will change my mind), and we can easily relegate facts to a far corner behind several pieces of heavy mental furniture.
Here’s a common example of denial: how we spend money. Desire, greed and need for status can easily override rational considerations, providing the stimuli that power our spending habits.
For instance, an important friend invites you to a birthday party at an expensive restaurant. You know that going will cost you at least $50. You know you’ll have to charge all of it. You know that your credit limits are stretched. You know you can’t really afford the extra $50 added to your debt. What do you do?
Most probably, you go and spend the $50. And you justify it with denial plus some delusion. Yes, the facts about how it will impact your financial state are true, but saying no to the party would mean confronting a strong desire, pride in ability to spend, your already impulsive habits, and your social status as a publicly-seen person. In short, it would mean admitting to a whole set of factual limitations concerning your life. Reality feels constricting, so denial rules.
The same reasoning process applies to a thousand different kinds of decisions, whether deciding on ordering French fries or another drink, or buying a new SUV, or going on a date with someone who’s married, or ignoring the fact that your date or spouse consistently drinks too much, or that you and your spouse haven’t had a meaningful conversation in over a year. Denying those facts allows you to keep moving rather than stopping and facing the painful restrictions and demands of reality.
There is an immutable fact about denial: it does not work—long term. Reality always wins. And when it does, the next step in the process is blame, which shifts responsibility onto someone or something else. "I only did it because of you! If you hadn't done that, I wouldn't have done this." So where there's denial, blame is always available to ease the pain when reality bites.
So yes, the state of being “in denial” does exist. Whether your family member is correct in assigning that state to the rest of you is a different question—but it is in fact a condition many of us live in on a regular basis.