Do you get irritated when you are faced with facts that conflict with your agenda? Are you in disbelief about situations, relationships, or your condition? If you are offended when people give you negative feedback about your behavior or speak their truth, you may be living in denial.
What is denial?
Denial is a natural defense for humans. Everyone has a certain level of denial at any point in time to protect themselves from stressors or pain (Costa, 2017). We often use denial in the first stage of encountering intense negative feelings such as grief and loss. Originally conceptualized by Freud, denial is considered a defense mechanism against an unbearable reality. A small proportion of people never leave this state of existence.
Denial around difficult circumstances for a short time is normal; but for many, this becomes a way of being and is toxic. One can remain there for years.
There are spectrums of denial.
Like many mental health disorders, there are levels of denial. You might know something is wrong but dismiss the relevancy of the source. Your gut instinct tells you not to trust someone or something, but you ignore it. You admit to some problematic behavior, but rationalize it based on your own cognitive distortions. Or maybe you outright dismiss someone’s feelings when someone shares how you negatively affected them. These levels of denial range from resistance all the way to psychotic denial.
Denial can manifest as minimization, the construction of fantasies to distract from the stressor, and/or maximizing other events to dismiss the stressor. Recognition of denial which commonly occurs within the behavioral health realm includes coming to the realization you have an addiction or accepting the reality of the death of a loved one.
What causes denial?
There are several reasons for continuing (unhealthy) denial. You may have unconsciously adopted your family’s toxic traits or it may be a traumatic response as a result of abuse. You could have a conscious agenda to fulfill your needs despite the cost to others. You might have a serious mental health disorder or a personality disorder. You may be unable to handle a painful reality and retreat into a fantasy world. Whatever the reason, you aren’t going to know until it backslaps you in the face.
In my counselling practice, clients often present as living in denial in hundreds of different ways with one or more of the same underlying problems: addictions, detachment, personality disorders, or mood disorders (non physiological). I address this daily, helping my clients break through denial utilizing a number of different strategies.
In addiction related denial, the brain does not want to give up the compulsive lifestyle for physiological as well as psychological reasons. It changes itself to protect the addiction at any cost. As addiction physically alters your brain, it begins to override the logical parts, bypass all other needs fulfillment, and root right into the basic needs areas. Addiction tells the brain that all you need is this “thing” such as drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, gambling, sex, or any other kind of addiction. This is why people dealing with addiction hurt those they love that try to help them, do things they would never do without the addiction, and self-sabotage. The brain will protect that addiction as if it will kill them should they not have that stimulus. It feels like death when you don’t have your “thing” of addiction and enter withdrawal.
Denial keeps you from seeing all this damage in order to keep you in your addiction.
The rat experiment conducted by Bruce Alexander is an example of how addiction works. Rats will keep using the drugged water until dead. They will forgo all other basic needs for the use of this drug.
For anybody who struggles with any kind of addiction, you will leave a trail of destruction. The denial of this is the first thing you have to overcome in the recovery journey. You have to experience the reality and depth of your problem.
This is also why Step 1 reads: “we admitted we were powerless over *alcohol* (or any other compulsive behavior) and that our lives had become unmanageable.
It was not until I became honest about my condition that I could begin the process of change.” To fix the problem, you first have to identify and accept the reality of what it is.
Shame prevents this first step of breaking through denial for most because it is at the root of many mental health disorders
John Bradshaw discusses the concept that shame is at the heart of many (non-physiological) mental health disorders in his text Healing the Shame That Binds You. Based on toxic shame, this keeps you from going inward. Toxic shame is that feeling of inherent defectiveness. If you are flawed and broken, then there’s something wrong with you- and you are a mistake. If you are living an imperfect life and struggling, then it is your fault and you are hopeless. If you are hopeless, you will never get it right. These thought distortions scare many into hiding within their own minds and often lead to denial. If you are afraid to see what is hidden within, you will go straight into denial and project all of your negative feelings onto others and find any way you can to run from your negative feelings states.
In this same book, John Bradshaw describes the concept of a shame based “poisonous pedagogy”. This sets the stage for these deluded ways of being and maladaptive coping mechanism formation. The rules of familial systems that deny emotions encourage psychic numbing. If you show strong emotions that are not approved of, you will experience harsh reactions such as belittlement, dehumanization, or rejection. It is this psychic numbing that leads to numerous other disorders like addiction or personality disorders. These familial structures are based on ideas from the time societies were led by kings. The rules are non-democratic, based on obedience, rigid, and deny any kind of individuality or spontaneity. Many of these often unconscious shame based social and societal structures can also lead to denial as a coping mechanism or as a symptom of underlying issues.
What is shame?
In my blogs, I talk about shame a lot. As described in the linked blog article, there are different forms of shame. Healthy shame is that which you experience when your behavior does not match your values. It saves you from behaving offensively. Toxic shame is that inherent feeling of defectiveness, wrongness, being broken, unable, not valuable, and not belonging. Toxic shame is that distorted core belief that despite what you do, you will never be good enough. This usually results from a developmental/childhood wound.
You feel shame in your body. It might be a hot/red face like blushing, heaviness in the chest, on the upper back, or twisting and gnawing feeling in the gut. Shame is an incredibly uncomfortable and miserable feeling. When you feel shame, you will get small. Your voice will soften and quiet, your head will sink low, you will slouch forward, and look down and away from anyone you feel can see just how defective you are. Shame makes you want to crawl into a hole and disappear. Mentally, you begin to distract yourself or dissociate.
This is a natural reaction, and a telltale sign for us as therapists to discover what our clients experience, when they experience it, and to watch out for the why.
Continued in: Denial Part II: Destructive Denial
1. Costa, R.M. (2017). Denial (Defense Mechanism). In: Zeigler-Hill, V., Shackelford, T. (eds) Encyclopedia of Personality and Individual Differences. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-28099-8_1373-1
2. Rinn, W. Desai, N.; Rosenblatt, H; Gastfriend, D. “Addiction Denial and Cognitive Dysfunction: A Preliminary Investigation.” Neuropsychiatry and Neurosciences. Published Online: 1 Feb 2002. https://doi.org/10.1176/jnp.14.1.52
3. Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health. 2023 The Neurobiology of Substance Use, Misuse, and Addiction. Executive Summary:The Surgeon General’s Report. https://addiction.surgeongeneral.gov/executive-summary/report/neurobiology-substance-use-misuse-and-addiction#:~:text=Every%20substance%20has%20slightly%20different,transmit%20messages%20between%20nerve%20cells.