Denial is a defense mechanism in which an individual refuses to recognize or acknowledge objective facts or experiences. It’s an unconscious process that serves to protect the person from discomfort or anxiety.
For example, a loved one may insist that she doesn’t have a problem with alcohol, despite the fact that it interferes with work and family life. Or a loyal employee may refuse to see signs that his boss is stealing from the company.
The concept arose from the work of Sigmund Freud, whose daughter, Anna Freud, developed the idea of defense mechanisms, unconscious strategies whereby people protect themselves from anxious thoughts or feelings. Anna believed that denial unconsciously protected the ego from discomfort and distress by rejecting aspects of reality itself. Denial was primarily used in childhood and adolescence, she believed, and could be damaging when employed regularly in adulthood.
Although many of Freud's ideas have been disproven, psychologists today still believe that defense mechanisms like denial are a valid concept.
Denial can encompass truths too difficult for an individual to confront or to accept. Yet therapy offers a space to safely and gradually process those beliefs and experiences. It can help people understand the roots of their emotions and behavior, eventually replacing denial with healthier coping skills.
Denial is important to address in therapy because it reveals underlying challenges that are often causing an individual distress. If someone drinks excessively, exploring why they drink—to medicate their anxiety, for example—allows the patient to discuss their experience and develop skills to manage anxiety. Similarly, if a woman denies that a relationship is abusive, she may be struggling with fears around abandonment, loneliness, or past relationships that a therapist can help her navigate.
Few people easily and quickly accept the conclusion that they have a problem with alcohol or substance use. Many struggle mightily against it and craft a variety of arguments to demonstrate that they don’t have a problem. A few of the most common forms of denial: “All of my friends drink more than I do.” “I’m too successful to have a drinking problem.” And “I only use when…” Recognizing instances of denial and misdirection is an important first step in acknowledging the problem and seeking help.
Yes, people can struggle to understand or acknowledge that they have a disorder. For example, bipolar disorder is a condition in which someone’s mood cycles through periods of depression and mania. Mania is a state of euphoria characterized by extremely high energy, overconfidence, and impulsive behavior. Hypomania is a more mild or moderate version of that state. A feature of mania and hypomania is denying that anything is wrong or unusual.
For more, see Bipolar Disorder.
Denial can be controversial. If a patient rejects a therapist's suggestion or interpretation, the therapist can theoretically dismiss the claim by stating that the patient is in denial. Indeed, the charge of denial can be levied at anything a patient says or does that runs contrary to a particular theory about her.
For example, if a patient undergoing psychoanalysis is regarded by her analyst as being in denial about her sexual orientation, disagreeing with the analyst or having a string of heterosexual relationships can be taken to confirm her supposed homosexuality: “You’re only saying this because you’re in denial...” As a result, the patient cannot “prove” her heterosexuality to the analyst and even come to believe that the analyst is correct.
Denial can shape dynamics in different domains of life, whether that be ignoring relationship conflicts or refusing to acknowledge an illness. In many of these instances, denial leads to short-term satisfaction but long-term pain. In the end, confronting reality—even when it’s difficult—is the best path forward.
As a defense mechanism, denial involves a refusal to accept the truth or reality. "No, I'm just a social smoker," is a good example. People may apply a similar justification for other harmful habits, such as excessive alcohol or substance use and compulsive gambling or shopping, to unconsciously distance themselves from uncomfortable truths of their behavior and protect their self-esteem.
Common defense mechanisms can undermine healthy relationships. In the case of denial, people may isolate themselves against their flaws and mistakes. They might pretend that everything is fine and ignore their own negative emotions or disagreements within the relationship. This can prevent the problem from being acknowledged, discussed, and resolved. Even though it may be more difficult in the short term, confronting these difficulties will strengthen the relationship in the long run.
Desire, greed, or the need for status can override rational considerations and shape our spending habits. For instance, someone may love to shop, even though they aren’t financially secure and are accruing debt. Psychologically they may deny their financial reality to continue buying items they can’t afford. This prevents the person from admitting to factual limitations that feel constricting or upsetting.
In her influential book On Death and Dying, psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross introduced a model of bereavement that is commonly referred to as the Five Stages of Grief. This model describes five discrete stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Kübler-Ross developed this model based on patients who received terminal cancer diagnoses, yet the model has since been critiqued and overgeneralized. The truth is that grief is unique to each individual. For some, denial may play a part in the process.