Denial: Telling Ourselves Stories That Hide the Truth

Does denial always result in a negative outcome—or can it be a coping strategy?

Posted Nov 28, 2020

 Denial (Daniel Bombardier), used with permission
Denial Denial Denial (2015) Aerosol on framed wood by Denial (aka Daniel Bombardier).
Source: Denial (Daniel Bombardier), used with permission

Denial is a word we hear a lot these days, but what is it and why is it so important to understand? Why do we engage in denial? How can we recognize when we do it, when society does?

The Proto-Indo-European origin of “denial” is ne, meaning “no!” When we are in denial, we refuse and repudiate something with which we do not want to engage.

 Musée des beaux-arts de Marseille/Public Domain
“Antigone leads Oedipus out of Thebes” (1842) Oil on canvas painting by Charles Francois Jalabert (1818-1901).
Source: Musée des beaux-arts de Marseille/Public Domain

Sigmund Freud, and later his daughter Anna, also a psychoanalyst, understood denial as a defense mechanism that involves a refusal to accept reality. By blocking distressing reality from our awareness, denial is a psychological strategy our unconscious invokes to protect us from thoughts and feelings we may find unacceptable. To use a familiar expression, we turn “a blind eye” to an issue or situation that probably bears looking into.

Recently, I had a discussion with friends about denial. Each had her own poignant story. One involved a denial of infidelity in a troubled marriage when the clues and signals were in clear sight. Ignoring the signals, blocking them from her awareness, my friend was able, for a time, to fool herself into believing all was well. Inevitably, the time passed for restorative help and her marriage broke up.

As experience teaches, what we choose not to acknowledge does not disappear. In my friend’s situation, the sorrow, rage, and grief aroused by her husband’s infidelity needed to be faced and worked through. Denial may have provided short-term relief, but ultimately it proved self-defeating.

Popular culture abounds with stories about denial. Novels and memoirs of people struggling with addictions of all kinds fill our bookstores and rivet our attention. Many biopics about iconic entertainers—Johnny Cash, Elton John, and Queen, to name a few—trace a trajectory from denial to redemption as the subject faces his demons. From podcasts and videos to major works of art, so prevalent is the theme of denial and waking up from denial that we might conclude that, as a culture, we are obsessed with it. However, being immersed in such a popular culture does not mean we know how to apply to ourselves the lessons these stories depict.

At one extreme, horror movies supply images and tropes of denial for us to marvel and laugh at. In movies like The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, or Psycho, the viewer is aware before the victim that evil is afoot and that the victim is ignoring the warnings or not paying attention. Part of the thrill for us as an audience is that we are privy to knowledge the protagonist rejects. As the scary incidents increase, we tense for the explosive situation to erupt while the victim chooses to remain innocent and dismiss reality—until it’s too late.

What motivates these fictional characters to deny the facts mirrors what we experience in our very real lives: When we numb out, deny, avoid and distract ourselves, and in extreme cases, dissociate, our coping mechanisms have broken down. Denial is our mind’s canny ability to “keep us in the dark” when thoughts and feelings become too overwhelming. Our mind says: “This isn’t happening, can’t happen, won’t happen,” despite evidence to the contrary. Today, we can see the impact of this on a global level in people who deny the reality of COVID-19, resulting in death on a grand scale.

But denial can have another aspect, one that is beneficial, and can even be lifesaving. Here is a story from a different friend:

Robert had his first physical therapy appointment when he was still a young baby because it was clear that he was at risk of having cerebral palsy due to his difficult birth. His tone varied from floppy to stiff and he had significant oral motor problems that led to feeding difficulties. After her assessment, the physical therapist showed me three easy exercises she recommended I should have Robert do several times a day. I clearly remember thinking “I can do this, if this is all I have to do it’s not going to be hard.” At the same time, part of me was aware that this was only the beginning of a very long process of many more exercises and interventions, but my mind clearly couldn’t deal with thinking ahead, so I told myself to just focus on what she had given me and not think about anything else. This denial was the only way that I could cope, and it served me well.

The day Robert died, his kidney output was clearly decreasing. Medically, I knew that meant that this could be the end, but it had happened before and he had recovered, so I told myself that I wouldn’t think about it. I even went to visit a woman in a nursing home that night, telling myself that even if Robert was dying, he wouldn’t want me to stop my life and not see her since she was so sick. When I got home, I did some energy work with him and felt his aura moving farther away from his body. I told myself that meant that his aura was getting stronger, not that it was leaving him. Denial of his impending death was the only way that I could cope and not break down in front of him. I could not imagine life without him and realized that no amount of thinking about what lay ahead could prepare me or be helpful. 

At the same time, deep in my heart, I knew that he needed to die soon. His body was in so much pain and it was no way to live. Part of me tried to let his soul know that it was okay for him to leave, but one of my regrets is that we didn’t talk directly about his death because I didn’t have the strength.

I think denial can be helpful in staying in the moment and being present with what is. Without it as a coping strategy, it’s easy to ruminate about what could lay ahead and not be able to do what you need to do at the time. In my experience in taking care of Robert, denial has served me very well! 

Depth psychologist Carl Jung famously wrote: “One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.”

Becoming conscious and aware requires courage, resilience, and a mind willing to be flexible in its attitudes. Denial occurs when our mind is stricken and overwhelmed and contracts against a full knowledge of the truth. But we are not helpless to change. Fear and anxiety do not have to constrict our notions of reality.

This beautiful Japanese haiku written at the turn of the 20th century encourages a trust in facing the darkness and the unknown. In the silence and stillness, and even terror of looking into a dark sky, hidden sparks of light grow visible.

             If you put out the lamp

            distant stars enter

             your window

                                                —Natsume Sõseki

 Musée d'Orsay/Public Domain
Starry Night Over the Rhône (1888) Oil on canvas painting by Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890).
Source: Musée d'Orsay/Public Domain