What Is Denial? – The Good and Bad of this Defense Mechanism

At some point, everyone practices denial. In a sense, it is a perfectly natural response to life’s disappointments and heartaches. Indeed, for some it is the only alternative to despair. For others, however, denial itself is the problem, holding back their personal growth and preventing them from confronting important issues until it is too late.

Understanding Denial

In essence, denial is a coping mechanism. An individual can be in denial about almost anything, from emotions and illnesses to bereavement and marriage breakdown. And it isn’t only practiced by individuals. Collective denial is very common. Families, for example, can go into denial about a loved one’s behaviour. Social classes can also practice it. The rich often go into denial about the poverty and misery of those less fortunate than themselves. You can see this in the paintings of Victorian England, where artists have often depicted the poor as content and well-fed. The reverse can also be found of course, with socialists refusing to accept that those who enjoy great wealth can be honourable and well-meaning. Even nation states can go into denial. Few people will accept that their soldiers commit atrocities or that their nation has been unjust.

Perhaps most surprising of all, denial can be healthy. When people experience the sudden, brutal death of a loved one, for example, they often slip into denial. So long as it is not practiced too long or too deeply, this initial denial may give them time to absorb the shock and space to prepare for the grief and pain.

The Family

Deep-rooted, unhealthy denial often begins in the family. For example, a woman who cannot enjoy sexual relations with her partner may have grown up in a family that never spoke about sex. Such denial is frequently non-verbal, asserted through coughs, blushes, and hostile body language. When sex was discussed on the radio or in a movie, perhaps the father would silently change channels. Another common form of denial is to turn something bad into something good. A violent, tyrannical father, for example, who makes the neighbour’s life a misery and picks fights with those weaker than himself, may be revered by his wife and children as a strong, manly man instead of reviled as the bullying thug he really is.


Denial often plays a key role in human relationships – sometimes it is the only thing keeping people together. An individual may convince themselves that their partner is loyal and loving when in fact she often cheats on him. Couples will sometimes go into denial when the love between them dies, with each convincing themselves that the relationship is strong and thriving. And lonely people who find it difficult to establish loving relationships can convince themselves that a new lover is kinder, sweeter, and more attractive than they really are because they fear they will never find anyone better. Such denial usually begins when one, or both, cannot face the prospect of being alone. Perhaps they fear that they are too old to find anyone else, or that divorce will mean financial ruin and a lower standard of living. Some go into denial not because they love, or wish to remain with, their partner but because they cannot bear the humiliation of admitting he no longer loves them.

Those in denial about some character flaw will often be attracted to partners who are themselves in denial about the same thing. In other words, they will avoid people who may challenge them. The same is true of those with addictions. Many alcoholics who refuse to admit to their problem form relationships with other alcoholics. They can then slip into a downward spiral of addiction, sometimes dying without ever having admitted they had a problem.

Weakness, Vulnerability and Exploitation

Therapists often find denial hampers progress with their clients, and it can take a huge amount of time and effort to break down the resistance. The reality is that those in denial wish to remain there. It is certainly easier and more comfortable than the alternative. But denial can be dangerous, leaving people weak and vulnerable to exploitation. The parents of a drug-addicted son may lend him money to start a business or buy a new home when in fact their savings go straight to his heroin dealer. Friends will often shake their heads in disbelief, but the truth is that they so want to believe he is starting a new life that they have slipped into fantasy. This is also true of death and bereavement. People will ignore things like wills and life insurance because sorting them out means admitting that the person they love will die some day.

The denial of emotion can also leave people vulnerable. A child who grows up in a family that coped poorly with anger may shut that emotion down. When he is later bullied at school or work and needs a surge of anger to help him fight back, he may find that it simply isn’t available. The added danger is that his anger then simmers and builds until it reaches boiling point and he causes serious harm to himself or others.

Again it must be stressed that denial is natural. Life is very difficult and, as T. S. Eliot famously put it, “mankind cannot bear very much reality.” But as a general rule, it is always healthier to face things. Indeed, the better you are at facing and accepting reality, the healthier and more stable you will be.

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