I have posted several articles in the past on the topic of denial. But because of the misconceptions that still surround the term and because so many disturbed characters are prone to engage in this behavior, I am re-posting on the subject.
Anyone familiar with the “jargon” of mental health professionals of all persuasions has undoubtedly heard the term denial. It’s fairly common, however, for both professionals and laypersons, however, to use the term denial improperly or in a poorly defined or over-generalized manner.
In classical (psychodynamic) psychology, denial is an unconscious ego defense mechanism. Basically, that means that a person unwittingly puts up a barrier to experiencing what is too painful to consciously bear. An example might be a situation in which a woman who has been married to the same man for 40 years has just had to rush him to the hospital because while they were out in the yard working, he began having trouble speaking and appeared in some distress. The doctors later tell her that he has suffered a stroke, is now virtually brain-dead, and will not recover. Yet, every day she comes to his bedside, holds his hand, and talks to him. The nurses tell her he cannot hear, but she talks to him anyway. The doctors tell her he will not recover, but she tells herself, “I know he’ll pull through, he’s such a strong man.” This woman is in a unique psychological state – the state of denial. She can hardly believe what has happened. Not long ago she was in the yard with her darling, enjoying one of their favorite activities. The day before, they were at a friend’s home for a get-together. He seemed the picture of happiness and health. He didn’t seem that sick when she brought him to the hospital. Now – in a blink of an eye – they’re telling her he’s gone. This is more emotional pain than she can bear just yet. She’s not ready to accept that her partner of 40 years won’t be coming home with her. She’s not quite ready yet to face a life without him. So, her unconscious mind has provided her with an effective (albeit likely temporary) defense against the pain. Eventually, as she becomes better able to accept the distressing reality, her denial mechanism will break down, and when it does, the pain it served to contain will gush forth and she will grieve.
Now, let’s take another example of so-called “denial.” Joe, the class bully, strolls up to one of his unsuspecting classmates and engages in one of his favorite mischievous pastimes: pushing the books out of her arms and spilling them on the floor. It just so happens that the hall monitor sees the event and sternly hollers: “Joe!,” to which Joe, spreading his arms wide open and with a look of great shock, surprise, and innocence on his face asks: “Whaaaat?” Is Joe in an altered psychological state? Does he really not understand the reality of what has happened? Does he really think he didn’t do anything? Is his behavior brought about by more emotional pain than he could possibly bear? Is he so consumed with shame and/or guilt for what he’s done that he simply can’t bear to believe he actually did such a horrible thing? More than likely, no. Joe is probably more concerned that he has another detention hall punishment coming, which means another note to his parents, and possibly even suspension. So, he’s got one long-shot tactic to try. He’ll do his best to make the Hall Monitor believe she didn’t really see what she thought she saw. The hallway was crowded. Maybe it was someone else. Maybe it was just an “accident.” If he acts surprised, innocent, and righteously indignant enough, maybe, just maybe, she’ll begin to doubt. He prays that unlike him, maybe she is neurotic enough (i.e. has an overactive conscience and excessive sense of guilt or shame) to possibly think she might be misjudging him, maybe she’ll even berate herself for jumping to conclusions or for causing a possibly innocent party emotional pain. This tactic may have worked before. Maybe it will work again.
Professionals and lay persons alike often misuse the term denial. They fail to consider that not all “denial” is the same. Sometimes, denial is truly an unconscious psychological state. Sometimes, it’s a refusal to admit a problem. Sometimes, it’s a tactic of manipulation and impression management. And the basic tactic of denial can be expressed in several other subtle variations such as feigning innocence, feigning ignorance, and acting surprised. But no matter what form in which it comes, it’s most often merely a way of lying. The problem is that these distinctions are not always made. Often, when a person denies, it’s simply assumed that their denial is a “defense” against the unbearable. In my experience, the term “in denial” is widely overused. Disturbed characters of all sorts frequently engage in denial. It’s extremely rare, however, that they do so because they are in such inner distress over their behavior that they simply can’t consciously accept what they’re doing. Most of the time, they know exactly what they’re doing, but they want you to think otherwise.