Author C.S. Lewis once famously said, “Denial is the shock absorber for the soul. It protects us until we are equipped to cope with reality.” That’s a pretty positive way to think about denial – and there are times that denial can be a wonderful coping mechanism.
According to the Mayo Clinic staff, when you are in denial, “you’re trying to protect yourself by refusing to accept the truth about something that is happening in your life.” This refusal to accept the truth is a coping mechanism that can sometimes be helpful in the short-term. If you don’t let yourself think about something that is particularly painful, you might give yourself a bit of time to adjust to the difficult situation.
We all utilize denial at different points in our lives; however, denial can also be dangerous and destructive. For someone who ignores signs of a cancerous growth, that may mean that chemotherapy was no longer productive. For someone who charges on their credit card and throws out the bills, denial mean it will take many more years to get out from under mounting credit card debt. And, if someone denies traumatic emotional experiences insisting they are fine, denial might lead to years of depression.
When Denial is Good for You
Research in the fields of psychology and anthropology shows that a healthy dose of denial can be critically important to forming and nourishing close relationships. People use denial in order to live with everyday dishonesty and betrayal, both on their own end and on the part of others. These tools of denial also provide the foundation for the ability to forgive.
Michael McCullough, a psychologist at the University of Miami and the author of Beyond Revenge: The Evolution of the Forgiveness Instinct explains that as social creatures, we need denial in order to forgive, “We really do want to be moral people, but the fact is that we cut corners to get individual advantage, and we rely on the room that denial gives us to get by, to wiggle out of speeding tickets, and to forgive others for doing the same.”
The same goes for denial and forgiveness in marriage. Studies show that people often idealize their partners, playing up their strengths and minimizing their flaws. We might think that their anger is passion and their intractability a steadfast resolve to the ideas of right and wrong. Through this “touch-up” work, we turn our spouses flaws into strengths. Because we idealize our spouses, we treat them in this idealized way, and they therefore begin to see themselves that way as well. Therefore, their anger morphs into passion and their stubbornness into moral reasoning. Research has continued to show that couples who live with this healthy dose of denial stay together and report being more satisfied in their relationship than others who do not. Of course, this denial is only beneficial when it comes to small issues. If we shovel major issues under the rug, that can cause major problems.
Help or Hurt?
When you are in denial, you refuse to acknowledge a stressful problem or situation, you avoid facing the facts of the situation, and you minimize the consequences of the situation. In most cases, this initial minimization of the facts and consequences can be helpful to give yourself a few extra moments to gain strength to handle the situation. And, there are times, like in relationships that practicing a bit of denial can improve your behavior and the behavior of those around you. However, if you feel that you are stuck in denial, here are some strategies to help you get “unstuck:”
- Think about the consequences if you continue to ignore the situation. While it might feel good to float within the cocoon of denial, you need to understand what you will encounter if you stay within that denial for too long. Therefore, think about what’s going to happen if you don’t take action. Maybe you need to seek medical treatment, or maybe you need to get a second job in order to pay off your debts.
- Write about your feelings. Keeping a journal can help you express exactly what you are feeling, and force you to be honest with yourself. Sometimes writing a journal can feel safer than speaking because you have more control over exactly what is written. Plus, you don’t need to show it to anybody.
- Speak to a friend or family member. When you share your pain with someone else, you are obliging yourself to acknowledge the difficult situation in which you are stuck. Then, the friend or family member can help you come up with the next steps to resolve the situation.
- Make a plan. With the help of the truth telling in your journal, or your friends, make a concrete plan with short, defined steps. Don’t just say, “Go to the doctor.” Instead, say, “1. Find dermatologist on my insurance; 2. Call dermatologist and make appointment; 3. Ask my sister to come to the appointment; 4. Make follow-up appointment if necessary.” This way, you know the exact steps you need to take in order to get out of your denial and it’s harder to get stuck on the solution.
- Seek professional help. It’s hard to admit that we are lost or in pain, but there are people who can facilitate growth and change. Professionals, whether they are grief counselors, doctors involved in palliative care, financial consults, or therapists can be an integral part of the plan to move past damaging denial. Recognize if your family and friends cannot help, and seek help from professionals who can provide you with the tools for moving forward.