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Denial

Reviewed by Psychology Today Staff

Denial is a defense mechanism in which an individual refuses to recognize or acknowledge objective facts or experiences. It’s an unconscious process that serves to protect the person from discomfort or anxiety.

For example, a loved one may insist that she doesn’t have a problem with alcohol, despite the fact that it interferes with work and family life. Or a loyal employee may refuse to see signs that his boss is stealing from the company.

The concept arose from the work of Sigmund Freud, whose daughter, Anna Freud, developed the idea of defense mechanisms, unconscious strategies whereby people protect themselves from anxious thoughts or feelings. Anna believed that denial unconsciously protected the ego from discomfort and distress by rejecting aspects of reality itself. Denial was primarily used in childhood and adolescence, she believed, and could be damaging when employed regularly in adulthood.

Although many of Freud's ideas have been disproven, psychologists today still believe that defense mechanisms like denial are a valid concept.

Denial in Therapy and Mental Health

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Denial can encompass truths too difficult for an individual to confront or to accept. Yet therapy offers a space to safely and gradually process those beliefs and experiences. It can help people understand the roots of their emotions and behavior, eventually replacing denial with healthier coping skills.

How is denial addressed in therapy?

Denial is important to address in therapy because it reveals underlying challenges that are often causing an individual distress. If someone drinks excessively, exploring why they drink—to medicate their anxiety, for example—allows the patient to discuss their experience and develop skills to manage anxiety. Similarly, if a woman denies that a relationship is abusive, she may be struggling with fears around abandonment, loneliness, or past relationships that a therapist can help her navigate.

Does denial play a role in addiction?

Few people easily and quickly accept the conclusion that they have a problem with alcohol or substance use. Many struggle mightily against it and craft a variety of arguments to demonstrate that they don’t have a problem. A few of the most common forms of denial: “All of my friends drink more than I do.” “I’m too successful to have a drinking problem.” And “I only use when…” Recognizing instances of denial and misdirection is an important first step in acknowledging the problem and seeking help.

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Denial in Everyday Life

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Denial can shape dynamics in different domains of life, whether that be ignoring relationship conflicts or refusing to acknowledge an illness. In many of these instances, denial leads to short-term satisfaction but long-term pain. In the end, confronting reality—even when it’s difficult—is the best path forward.

What’s an example of denial?

As a defense mechanism, denial involves a refusal to accept the truth or reality. "No, I'm just a social smoker," is a good example. People may apply a similar justification for other harmful habits, such as excessive alcohol or substance use and compulsive gambling or shopping, to unconsciously distance themselves from uncomfortable truths of their behavior and protect their self-esteem.

Can denial affect relationships?

Common defense mechanisms can undermine healthy relationships. In the case of denial, people may isolate themselves against their flaws and mistakes. They might pretend that everything is fine and ignore their own negative emotions or disagreements within the relationship. This can prevent the problem from being acknowledged, discussed, and resolved. Even though it may be more difficult in the short term, confronting these difficulties will strengthen the relationship in the long run.

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