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What is Denial?

Updated on February 13, 2011
Denial is like an ostrich with its head in the sand
Denial is like an ostrich with its head in the sand | Source

Denial: It's not just a river in Egypt

What is denial? According to the Meriam-Webster Dictionary, denial is “a psychological defense mechanism in which confrontation with a personal problem or with reality is avoided by denying the existence of the problem or reality.” Psychology can certainly complicate the description of our experiences but in many ways denial is simple. We all use defense mechanisms (i.e. ways we cope with anxiety or stress without even realize we are doing it). Denial is one of many defense mechanisms we use and it entails ignoring or refusing to believe an unpleasant reality.

What do we say or do when someone we love is in denial? Instead of fighting their denial (remember this is a defense mechanism), we can realize this person is experiencing so much stress or anxiety about the subject that they felt the needed to defend themselves against it. They are not ready to cope or deal with all of that stress and anxiety. Instead of trying to break the denial, help the person cope with the stress or anxiety they are experiencing. You could gently begin to offer other ways of coping that could replace the denial and the support of loved ones reduces stress and anxiety just knowing he/she is not alone when facing this unpleasant reality.

It can be frustrating to watch a loved one go through something and react in such an odd way to something stressful. It is important to remember our odd reactions are the only way we are able to cope at times. When I am in denial, only I can begin to acknowledge the facts of that unpleasant reality I am avoiding and only I can choose to stop denying when I am ready to use another way to cope with what I am facing.

Often times our best intentions for someone we love can cause more harm than good. Ripping away someone’s only defense to extreme anxiety could create more psychological stress then we bargained for and cause the person to fight back harder. The person needs to want to let go of something. This is true throughout our lives. If I am holding something I want and you attempt to take it, I will hold on tighter and pull back.

I was recently asked the question: What do you say to someone who is in denial of a serious medical diagnosis? My advice would be to not confront the denial head on like you feel compelled to. I have found the best way to deal with someone else’s denial is to use empathy. It is more important to focus on the reasons surrounding the person’s denial than the actual denial. With your support, this person may find the inner strength and personal desire to make a change and cope in another more constructive way.


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  • dkoffski profile image

    dkoffski 5 years ago from Piedmont, SC

    Very informative and easy to read, thanks.

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    chrisbergmann 6 years ago

    Well written, look forward to reading more of your articles