Denial: The Danger in Rejecting Reality

“Denial was a weapon; it killed truth, numbed the mind, and I was a junkie.”
– John Hart

If you read the title and thought, “Oh, I don’t struggle with that,” then this post might be for you. In fact, one of Western society’s biggest problems is rooted in the defense mechanism theorized by psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, way back in the 19th century. Freud postulated that denial is unconsciously choosing to push back on factual truths because to admit them would be too psychologically uncomfortable and require facing the unbearable.

We’ve all engaged in denial of some form as a way of protecting ourselves. In fact, short-term denial can be helpful in navigating extremely stressful situations that have the potential to be physiologically shocking and render us stuck. It’s when we allow this response to exist long-term, choosing not to take action based on truth, that it can become an unhealthy adaptive pattern.

When a person actively rejects facts and possible outcomes, despite overwhelming evidence, they are deciding to:

  1. Turn a blind eye:

“I’m in my bubble, and nothing like that happens here.” This is the “out of sight, out of mind” response. It’s unpleasant, so one compartmentalizes, shelves, and pushes to the side. It’s simply not happening, because they’re not acknowledging it as so.

  1. Minimize:

“This is an isolated incident…not necessarily a huge deal…or prevalent enough to be concerned with.” Minimization occurs when one is a bit more conscious but tends to downplay impact. It IS a problem, but they psychologically diminish its severity.

  1. Shift responsibility:

“Yes, it’s an issue, but I can’t do anything about it…Things will work out.” This type of denial finds a person admitting something exists but refusing their role in and accountability with resolving it. They acknowledge the seriousness and the reality but refuse the blame.

The problem with these choices is that the issues don’t change and often grow exponentially. What we don’t repair, we usually repeat. And while it may seem easier to continue existing in this loop of avoidance, it will often leave our lives more chaotic, void of the help we need, and full of genuine angst. Long-term abuse of this defense mechanism is also specifically linked to addiction, low self-esteem, personality disorders, relationship issues, codependency, depression, and anxiety.

Denial is the cornerstone of an alternative reality and is reinforced by the building blocks of motivated reasoning, rationalization, cognitive dissonance, groupthink and confirmation bias. As the Chinese proverb says, “Two-thirds of what we see is behind our eyes.” So, it is with confirmation bias that we only seek information to validate what we already believe. Motivated reasoning is a gut-level liking or disliking that determines how we interpret evidence and reality. Our desire to avoid negative emotions can motivate us to justify things the way they are and resist change to the status quo. Rationalization and groupthink convince us to make poor decisions, individually and collectively, as a result of our refusal to consider dissenting viewpoints. Contemplation diminishes confirmation. So, the quicker one chooses the route of cognitive dissonance, defending our actions to ourselves, the faster we reduce the tension that comes from having to process inconsistent thoughts or beliefs.

“It is better to live with your eyes open and acknowledge what you can’t control – while directing your attention to what you can – than it is to pretend that things you don’t wish to see don’t exist.” – Zero Dean

None of us want to willingly face emotional pain and anxiety head on, so it makes logical sense that denial be our default intention. It’s a means of survival. However, if we want to learn better ways of coping and dealing with uncomfortable feelings, issues, and situations in our lives, we would benefit by integrating the following scripts in our efforts to move past denial:

  1. Acceptance: 

“There is new information that certainly exists that is in direct opposition to what I believed or wanted to believe differently. I may not like it, but I have to decide what part of it I need to receive. Without being amenable to this information, I am choosing to do further harm to myself and others.”

  1. Accommodation: 

“I have to make room for this new information in my life, consider it, and understand how it fits into my existing framework, worldview, and belief system.”

  1. Adjustment: 

“I have to figure out the necessary changes or adaptations in my attitude and behavior that are needed to function with new normalcy. Also important at this stage is asking who can be key in supporting my evolution.”

At any time, we can all be willing participants in our complex culture of denial. Lee McIntyre writes, “Post-truth represents a cultural shift. It is an alarm call that the truth is in danger, not a pronouncement that the battle for truth is over. In this, one should accept the fact that truth is threatened not just by those who deny it, but also by those who refuse to take truth denial seriously, and so abet the deniers by claiming there is little to worry about so long as some of us are fighting back.”

Be mindful not to allow this protective pattern of your ego to morph into potentially disastrous long-term outcomes. You have the choice to wield this defense mechanism in a way that is more helpful than harmful.

About the Author

Dr. Barbara Ford Shabazz Dr. Barbara Ford Shabazz is currently the Psychology Program Director at South University, author of Intentional Balance, and the owner of Intentional Activities. For over 20 years, she has served students, clients, and the larger community as an instructor, advisor, speaker, consultant, therapist, and coach. Her clinical training commenced during an undergraduate practicum, where she initiated a collaborative partnership among the community elementary school teachers, parents, students, and university practicum enrollees. She has worked primarily in the Hampton Roads Virginia area with the community services board, various high schools, therapeutic foster care agencies, a pediatric medical practice, and a non-profit organization. Dr. Shabazz had the opportunity to hone her expertise in the mental health field through participating in her doctoral internship with Kern County Mental Health and practicing as a Resident in Psychology with a local psychotherapy practice, which provides services to a broad spectrum of clients. Close relationships with community organizations have helped to inform this educator's roles and responsibilities in academia. Dr. Shabazz not only facilitated a myriad of psychology courses for her alma mater's undergraduate and graduate programs, participated in student advising, and created a student-led colloquium series for the senior citizen neighbors, but she also had the honor of being recognized as favorite faculty. Additional classroom experience has offered invaluable lessons for practical application. Her position as an online professor helped to ensure competence with current trends and best practices in the field. More recently, Dr. Barbara has been drawn to the study of positive psychology, which was the impetus for seeking certification with the Coaching and Positive Psychology Institute. As a practicing certified personal and executive coach, her goal with Intentional Activities is to tap into the inherent strengths of each client, equipping them with the tools necessary to live a more action-oriented and authentic life. Dr. Shabazz earned her B.A. in psychology from Norfolk State University. She subsequently attended Regent University where she completed the requirements for her M.A. in Community and School Counseling , and Doctorate in Clinical Psychology. She is in a unique position to effect change from the classroom to the community, as she adeptly bridges theory and practice in her work with diverse populations. BARBARA FORD SHABAZZ PSY.D. , CPEC CLINICAL PSYCHOLOGIST, CERTIFIED PERSONAL AND EXECUTIVE COACH 757.305.7656 [email protected] www.intentionalactivities.com

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