Denial: When it helps, when it hurts

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Denial: When it helps, when it hurts

If you're in denial, you're not being realistic about something that's happening in your life — something that might be obvious to those around you.

In some cases, a little denial can be a good thing. Being in denial for a short period can be a healthy coping mechanism, giving you time to adjust to a painful or stressful issue. It might also be a precursor to making some sort of change in your life. Still, denial has a dark side. Being in denial for too long can prevent you from effectively dealing with issues that require action, such as a health crisis or a financial situation.

Find out when denial can help — and when it can be a roadblock.

Understanding denial and its purpose

Refusing to acknowledge that something's wrong is a way of coping with emotional conflict, stress, painful thoughts, threatening information and anxiety.

When you're in denial, you:

  • Refuse to acknowledge a stressful problem or situation
  • Avoid facing the facts of the situation
  • Minimize the consequences of the situation

In its strictest sense, denial is an unconscious process. You don't generally decide to be in denial about something. But some research suggests that denial might have a conscious component — on some level, you might choose to be in denial.

Common reasons for denial

You can be in denial about anything that makes you feel vulnerable or threatens your sense of control, such as:

  • A chronic or terminal illness
  • Depression or other mental health conditions
  • Addiction
  • Financial problems
  • Job difficulties
  • Relationship conflicts
  • Traumatic events

You can be in denial about something happening to you or to someone else.

Situations in which denial can be helpful

Refusing to face facts might seem blatantly unhealthy. Sometimes, though, a short period of denial can be helpful. Being in denial gives your mind the opportunity to unconsciously absorb shocking or distressing information at a pace that won't send you into a psychological tailspin.

For example, after a traumatic event, you might need several days or weeks to fully process what's happened and come to grips with the challenges ahead. Imagine what might happen if you find a lump in your throat. You might feel a rush of fear and adrenaline as you imagine it's cancer. So you decide to ignore the lump, hoping it'll go away on its own. But when the lump is still there a week later, you consult your doctor.

This type of denial is a helpful response to stressful information. You initially denied the distressing problem. As your mind absorbed it, however, you came to approach it more rationally and took action by seeking help.

Situations in which denial can be harmful

But what if you had continued to be in denial about the lump and tried to forget about it entirely? What if you never sought help? If denial persists and prevents you from taking appropriate action, such as consulting your doctor, it's a harmful response.

Consider these examples of unhealthy denial:

  • A college student witnesses a violent shooting but claims not to be affected by it.
  • The partner of an older man in the end stage of life refuses to discuss health care directives and wills, insisting that he's getting better.
  • An administrator periodically misses a morning meeting after drinking excessively the night before, but insists there's no problem because the work is still getting done.
  • A couple are ringing up so much credit card debt that they toss the bills aside because they can't bear to open them.
  • The parents of a young daughter with drug addiction keep giving her "clothing" money.

In situations such as these, denial might prevent you or your loved one from getting help, such as treatment or counseling, or dealing with problems that can spiral out of control — all with potentially devastating long-term consequences.

Moving past denial

When faced with an overwhelming turn of events, it's OK to say, "I just can't think about all of this right now." You might need time to work through what's happened and adapt to new circumstances. But it's important to realize that denial should only be a temporary measure — it won't change the reality of the situation.

It isn't always easy to tell if denial is holding you back. If you feel stuck or if someone you trust suggests that you're in denial, however, you might try these strategies:

  • Honestly ask yourself what you fear.
  • Think about the potential negative consequences of not taking action.
  • Allow yourself to express your fears and emotions.
  • Try to identify irrational beliefs about your situation.
  • Journal about your experience.
  • Open up to a trusted friend or loved one.
  • Participate in a support group.

If you don't seem to be making much progress dealing with a stressful situation on your own — you're stuck in the denial phase — consider talking to a mental health provider. He or she can help you find healthy ways to cope with the situation rather than trying to pretend it doesn't exist.

When a loved one needs help moving beyond denial

You might find it incredibly frustrating when someone you care about is in denial about an important issue. But before demanding that your loved one face the facts, take a step back. Try to determine if he or she just needs a little time to work through the issue.

At the same time, let the person know that you're open to talking about the subject, even if it makes both of you slightly uncomfortable. Ultimately, this may give your loved one the security he or she needs to move forward and take action.

If your loved one is in denial about a serious health issue, such as depression, cancer or an addiction, broaching the issue may be especially difficult. Offer support and empathetic listening. Don't try to force someone to seek treatment, which could lead to angry confrontations. Offer to meet together with a doctor or mental health provider. If the impasse remains, consider counseling for yourself to help you cope with your distress and frustration.

Last Updated: 2011-06-25
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