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Denial: It's Not Just a River in Egypt

Not everything needs our attention, but some things do.

Last week's post, "Is Ignorance Bliss?" generated some heated discussion among readers. It is so tempting to pit one extreme against the other as if to say that either utter ignorance or utter knowledge is bliss. As several readers pointed out, perhaps it is not an either-or issue. Balance is the key.

The comments got me thinking about one of our most popular and favorite psychological defenses: denial. As the old saying goes, denial is not just a river in Egypt—it is a force in all of our lives.

Actually, denial is probably essential for psychological survival. If we were aware of everything, the mind couldn't process it all. By everything, I mean all of the complex and often contradictory thoughts, feelings, and impulses that are in us and around us at any given time. Some of these experiences are too much to bear—too painful, too frightening, too overwhelming. If we were constantly in touch with awareness of all the dangers and longings of life, we would not function very well.

So the mind has developed an elegant kind of self-security system, where defenses like denial can be used to keep us from going crazy and to help us cope with the many demands of internal and external reality. By way of denial, we put unwanted and frightening impulses on the shelf; we turn a blind eye to them. To use a popular psychological term, we "compartmentalize." We unconsciously place them out of awareness so we can deal. In this limited way, denial is helpful.

But problems in life come when we use denial too extensively, too rigidly, too intensely. It is one thing when we bury our head in the sand for a day or two because we feel overwhelmed, but it is another thing if we make a lifestyle out of it—denying awareness of important things for too long. For a short time, it may be safe to ignore the squeaking brakes on our car, the IRS letter that arrived in the mail, the rash on the breast, the emotional distance of a loved one, the nagging feeling of guilt, the weather report about the upcoming storm. Often, such things resolve themselves; no harm, no foul. But if those important bits of information about important things grow and persist over time, denial could be the kiss of death.

A lifestyle of "not-knowing" requires that we subscribe to the old adage that what we don't know won't hurt us. But the evidence of life shows that this just isn't true. As a way of life, hear no evil-see no evil-speak no evil is a recipe for disaster. Denial may offer the appeal of short-term bliss, but it prevents us from taking responsibility for things that really do matter, things we could do something about.

On an individual level, denial can prevent us from doing all we can do to protect our health, safety, and all that we really value in life. Those things don't protect themselves. Our lives need our oversight, our care, our conscientious maintenance. Without our awareness of responsibility for ourselves, psychological forces—just like the natural force of entropy—pull us toward an infantile state of mind that is ultimately self-destructive. And, at the risk of getting political, if we as a society adopt denial in a widespread way about important things, we contribute to our own demise.

One aspect of mature psychological life is flexibility. It is helpful to see the big picture and to keep life in perspective. We cannot function well if we worry over and take responsibility for every little thing. It is safe and helpful to put some things on the shelf, to let them pass by. But if we make denial a way of life, then we turn a blind eye to important matters about which we could do and need to do something constructive. As individuals and as a society, we need to discern what is essential and bring our best selves to it.

To put it simply, not everything needs our full attention, but some things do.

Copyright 2011 Jennifer L. Kunst, Ph.D.

While I'm not able to respond to comments individually, I do welcome them and read them!