Denial is a defense mechanism that many individuals employ to cope with uncomfortable or distressing thoughts, emotions, or realities. It involves a refusal to accept or acknowledge the existence of certain aspects of one’s life or experiences. By denying the truth or avoiding the acknowledgment of something unpleasant, individuals may temporarily protect themselves from the emotional pain associated with facing it.
While denial can serve as a protective mechanism in the short term, it can have long-term consequences. By avoiding or suppressing the truth, individuals may hinder their personal growth and prevent discovery of helpful solutions to problems or necessary addressing of underlying issues that may continue to plague their lives.
Denial is a defense mechanism where we soothe discomforting emotions by denying certain aspects of external reality.
Denial when used as a defense mechanism involves refusing to accept or acknowledge the existence of certain aspects of one’s life or experiences that induce uncomfortable or painful emotions. T. Franklin Murphy wrote, “Denial is a pathologic defense that inhibits growth. Adequate information is available for reconsidering a belief but we deny it. The discomfort of changing produces too much anxiety, so, we deny anything that rocks the boat. For example, the smoker denies his shortness of breath, instead of acknowledging the detrimental impact of smoking to his health” (Murphy, 2021).
In psychology we often refer to denial as disassociation. We deny dissociate facts from the object they support. We excuse the obvious. Unsupported conspiracies thrive under the protective sheath of denial. Evidence is denied and emotional reasoning triumphs.
Historical Background of Denial in Psychology
The oddity of our unconscious mind defending against reality has been acknowledged for hundreds of years.
Sigmund Freud directed much of his work to identifying methods and causes for this human protection system. He wrote that “the psychological ego” was a repressing, “censoring agency, capable of constituting defences and reaction-formations” (Freud, 1990). In relation to the mechanism of denial, the censoring is of external realities. Basically, denying the existence of elements in the environment that weigh heavily on our mind, creating excessive anxiety. Freud, referring to the process of denial that the ego, “refuses to be hurt by the arrows of reality.” He continues, “it insists that it is impervious to wounds dealt by the outside world…” (1928).
Sigmund Freud’s daughter, Anna Freud, expounded on her father’s concepts of defense mechanisms, addressing denial in much more detail. She describes denial in comparison to repression. Anna Freud wrote, “just as, in the neurotic conflict, perception of a prohibited instinctual stimulus is warded off by means of repression, so the infantile ego resorts to denial in order not to become aware of some painful impression from without.” She added, “the method of denial, upon which is based the fantasy of the reversal of the real facts into their opposite, is employed in situations in which it is impossible to escape some painful external impression” (Freud, 1937).
Anna Freud suggests that denial is a childhood defense mechanism. As a child grows they are more capable of manipulating their environments and have less need for the psychological practice of denial. “When a child is somewhat older, his greater freedom of physical movement and his increased powers of psychic activity enable his ego to evade such stimuli and there is no need for him to perform so complicated a psychic operation as that of denial” (Freud, 1937).
George Valliant added significant contributions to the research and understanding of defense mechanisms through is work with the Harvard longitudinal study. He presented these findings in his book Adaptations to Life. Valliant describes denial, distortion, and projection as the defenses of psychosis. He lists denial as an immature defense. He explains that “denial involves the literal denial of external reality” (Valliant, 1998).
Modern neuroscience identifies the left side of the brain as more involved with the process of denial. Robert Trivers, an American evolutionary biologist and sociobiologist, wrote, “In effect, the left brain, the linguistic side, is associated with consciousness; the right side (left hand) is less conscious. This is supported by evidence that processes of denial—and subsequent rationalization—appear to reside preferentially in the left brain and are inhibited by the right brain. (Trivers, 2011, Kindle location: 1,170). Michael Gazzaniga, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, supports this. He discovered that “patients with left frontal lobe lesions tend not to be able to engage in denial, rationalization, or confabulatory ‘gap-filling’ and often become depressed” (Gazzaniga, 2011).
Utility of Denial as a Defense Mechanism
It’s essential to recognize that denial is a natural human response, and it can manifest in various forms. “Defense mechanism…refers to any cognitive operation that functions so as to protect the individual from the disruptive effects of excessive anxiety. In this sense, defenses are adaptive, they allow the individual to continue to function in anxiety-arousing situations.” However, Phebe Cramer adds, ” when used excessively, defenses may distort reality” (Cramer, 1987, p. 598).
Joseph Burgo explains that conflict motivates denial. He wrote, “a fact conflicts with our wishes, or a feeling conflicts with our values so we deny it” (Burgo, 2012). Processing opposing facts at the same time is cognitively expensive, demanding high resources, so we relegate the most unwanted side of the conflict to the unconscious. Trivers explains, “there is no obvious way to reduce the expense, other than to increase unconscious control. Mechanisms of denial and repression may serve to reduce immediate expense, but with ramifying costs later on” (2011, Kindle location: 391).
The Maladaptive Effects of Denial
Valliant explains “in human adjustment, it seems important to experience anxiety in optimal amounts – too little inhibits growth and too much precludes functioning. What is important is that suppression mitigates anxiety, but dissociation abolishes it” (2012). One could argue that if denial relieves overwhelming anxiety so we can act than it serves a healthy purpose. However, problems arises because denial is an unconscious process. We can’t effectively draw a line between helpful denial and disavowing of elements in reality necessary for growth.
Some people may completely reject the existence of a problem, while others may minimize its severity or rationalize away any evidence supporting it. Many of these problems should be resolved rather than denied. We may habitually deny key elements in significant areas of our life, such as in relationships, health, or careers.
Trivers proposes that “denial is also self-reinforcing—once you make that first denial, you tend to commit to it: you will deny, deny the denial, deny that, and so on” (2011, Kindle location: 2,517).
Denial as an Immature Defense
Most researchers and psychologists view denial as an immature defense. Anna Freud saw it used most extensively in early childhood. As children age, peer interaction helps the child graduate from the practice of denial to other more serviceable defenses. Cramer wrote, “the use of denial, beginning in infancy, continues throughout toddlerhood. By early childhood, social pressures from peers, as well as increased cognitive abilities, contribute to the reduction of this defense, although it may continue on an internal fantasy level” (1987, p. 599).
The American Psychiatric Association (APA, 2000) classifies defense mechanisms into seven groups. The highest level includes the most adaptive mechanisms that allow for the “conscious awareness of feelings, ideas, and their consequences.” The least adaptive mechanisms are “characterized by failure of defensive regulation to contain the individual’s reaction to stressors, leading to a pronounced break from objective reality” (Thobaben, 2005, p. 330).
Reducing Maladaptive Use of Denial as A Defense Mechanism
Nathaniel Branden wrote that “a basic characteristic of healthy self-esteem is a strong reality orientation.” Basically, he is suggesting we engage in the unconscious practice of denial because it is painful to acknowledge our weaknesses. He continues, “denial and defensiveness are characteristics of insecurity, guilt, feelings of inadequacy, and shame. It is low self-esteem that experiences a simple admission of error as humiliation and even self-damnation” (Branden, 1995).
Of course, raising self-esteem is not a simple process. It requires building trust in our ability to succeed. Small successes, supportive environments, and cognitively restructuring self debasing thoughts. Over time, our rising self-confidence naturally eliminates the need for denial.
In addition, we can assist the process by making unconscious denial conscious. This is a cognitive demanding process. However, mindfully examining our life without judgement may coax some of these nasty deceivers into the light of consciousness where we can observe their presence. Overcoming denial often requires self-reflection, introspection, and openness to confront the uncomfortable truths.
Abandoning life long habits requires the involvement of supporting trusted friends, family, or professionals. Others often can see the reality that we deny and if allowed to, will provide an outside perspective and guidance.
A Few Words by Psychology Fanatic
By embracing reality and facing challenges head-on, individuals can begin to develop healthier coping mechanisms and work towards personal growth and fulfillment. Remember, it’s crucial to approach the defense mechanism of denial with compassion and understanding, both towards oneself and others. It’s a complex psychological process that often stems from fear or a desire to preserve one’s self-image. By fostering self-awareness and practicing acceptance, individuals can navigate through denial and strive for a more authentic and fulfilling life.
American Psychiatric Association (2000) Appendix B: Defensive Functioning Scale. Diagnostic Statistical Manual of mental Disorders (4th ed. Text Revisions) (DSM-IV-TR). Washington, DC.
Branden, Nathaniel (1995) The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem: The Definitive Work on Self-Esteem by the Leading Pioneer in the Field. Bantam; Reprint edition.
Burgo, Joseph (2012). Why Do I Do That?: Psychological Defense Mechanisms and the Hidden Ways They Shape Our Lives. New Rise Press. Kindle Edition.
Freud, Anna (1937). The Ego and Mechanisms of Defense. Routledge; 1st edition.
Freud, Sigmund (1920/1990). Beyond the Pleasure Principle. W. W. Norton & Company; The Standard edition.
Freud, Sigmund (1928). Humour. Collected Papers
Gazzaniga, Michael S. (2011). Who’s in Charge?: Free Will and the Science of the Brain. Ecco; Reprint edition.
Thobaben, Marshelle (2005). Defense Mechanisms and Defense Levels. Home Health Care Management & Practice, 17(4), 330-332. DOI: 10.1177/1084822304274097
Murphy, T. Franklin (2021). Defense Mechanisms. Psychology Fanatic. Published 2-4-2021. Accessed 9-29-2023.
Trivers, Robert (2011). The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life. Basic Books; 1st edition.
Vaillant, George E. (1977/1998) Adaptations to Life. Harvard University Press; Reprint edition.