Dr. Deb’s Mental Health Vitamin: Dealing with denial
By Dr. Deb Wade
GCU Vice President, Counseling and Psychological Services
Have you ever been in denial? If so, you probably were protecting yourself by refusing to accept, either consciously or unconsciously, the truth about something that is happening in your life.
And, like most everything, denial can have two “sides.” It can be protective and healthy, but it also can have a dark underbelly that is actually unhealthy.
Each of us is equipped with defense mechanisms that can serve to protect us … or actually can be a disservice to us. Let’s take a deeper dive into this most natural of occurrences and examine how it can work FOR us, not AGAINST us.
Denial is a primitive defense mechanism where one refuses to accept reality or fact, acting as if a painful event, thought or feeling did not exist. It is considered a primitive defense mechanism because it is very characteristic of early childhood development. If I just pretend like it doesn’t exist, then it doesn’t.
When denial can be positive and helpful:
Although refusing to face facts might always seem unhealthy, a short period of denial can actually be a great service to someone grappling with and trying to absorb shocking, unexpected or distressing news. This period of denial may give your mind the opportunity to unconsciously process this new information at a pace that won’t send you into a psychological shutdown or tailspin.
An example might be a sudden realization that you have a lump that has unexpectedly occurred on your body. When you discover it, you immediately may feel tears begin to surface, as fear and adrenalin grip you at the surfacing of “cancer” into your psyche.
You may respond immediately by ignoring it for a while, hoping it will go away as suddenly as it occurred. This is denial. You may need several days or weeks to actually come to grips with the challenges and changes ahead. As your mind begins to absorb the possibility, however, you begin to approach the problem more rationally and reach out for help. You see, this type of denial was a helpful response because it gave you time to accept the possibilities and arrange for an action plan.
When denial can be harmful and work against you:
When you allow denial to persist and you find yourself being the proverbial “head in the sand” person – you avoid reality and don’t allow anyone to talk to you about it – AND you find yourself distanced from the very ones who want to help, you are potentially setting yourself up for devastating long-term consequences.
An example may include someone ringing up massive amounts of credit card debt, trying to hide it from the spouse, but, more important, throwing away statements without reading them. Of course, if this continues, it could completely derail the family’s financial stability and put the marriage at risk, too.
Another situation is one that I have seen in my office in the past, about a young woman who was sexually molested as a child by a family member. She had been in denial of it actually occurring until she realized that, as a young adult woman, she had absolutely no trust of any man, that she could not allow herself to have emotional or sexual intimacy, and that she was living in complete fear.
While that denial undoubtedly protected her as a child because it kept her from facing the reality of the traumatic act, denial was no longer serving her as an adult. It was time to face the trauma, feel the pain and loss of her innocence, and write a new script for herself as a woman who had good discernment and relational skills.
Finding healthy balance:
If you’re facing a life challenge that is overwhelming and devastating and you’re not feeling equipped to manage it at the moment, it is OK to say to yourself, “I just can’t think about all of this right now. I need to avoid it completely.”
You may need time to work through this new reality and adapt to new circumstances that are now part of your life. But, it’s important to realize that denial should only be a temporary retreat – it won’t change the reality of the situation you are facing.
Sometimes it is truly hard to discern. If you feel stuck or if someone lovingly suggests that you’re in denial, ask yourself:
- What am I honestly fearing?
- What are the consequences for not taking action?
- What exactly are all my fears and emotions?
- Are there irrational beliefs about my feelings?
- Have I avoided an action plan to recover?
Yes, DENIAL can provide an effective, but also temporary, defense against pain. Eventually, as you are better equipped to face the reality, the pain will surface and you can finally grieve or feel. THAT is the best response of all!