Denial: Benefits and Dangers of Emotional Blindness

Man in denial with head in the sand

Denial

Benefits and Danger of Emotional Blindness

Written by Randi Fine

Narcissistic Abuse Awareness and Guidance with Randi Fine

Denial is characterized by the refusal to acknowledge or accept painful truths, distressing thoughts, and uncomfortable feelings despite overwhelming evidence that the reality exists.

Denial is not always a bad thing. It is normal to engage in small amounts from time to time and we all use it. It can be a beneficial mechanism that absorbs emotional shock and protects our psychological health. It helps us temporarily cope with tough situations such as grieving, disasters, or trauma that might otherwise interfere with our ability to function. It gives us time to adjust to traumatic changes that occur in our lives.

When used to cope with life for short, critical periods of time, denial is healthy and beneficial. It only becomes a problem when we use it for extended periods of time to avoid accepting a truth and working through our issues, and when we become stuck in an emotionally blind mindset that prevents us from moving forward.

Freud theorized that defense mechanisms such as denial are strategies used by the unconscious mind to manipulate, deny, or distort reality in order to defend against feelings of anxiety and unacceptable impulses. He breaks the use of denial into ten categories: Rejection, Repression, Suppression, Displacement, Sublimation, Projection, Intellectualization, Rationalization, Regression, and Reaction Formation.

  • Rejection involves either a complete rejection of the existence of a reality or an admission of its truth, but a minimization of its importance. For instance, those with addictions often use rejection when confronted with a habit they don’t want to give up.
  • Repression is an unconscious mechanism used to keep painful information out of our conscious awareness. For instance, those who have had painful childhoods or painful childhood episodes that they have difficulty remembering are said to have repressed those memories.
  • Suppression is a conscious mechanism used to push undesired information out of our awareness or delay it. For instance,  someone who has bills piling up may put off paying them by finding reasons to be too busy.
  • Displacement is an ego defense mechanism that involves shifting anxiety producing frustrations or anger about ourselves, others, or situations we find ourselves in onto others. For instance, someone who is frustrated with his boss at work, but cannot act on it for fear he will lose his job, may come home and lash out at his family.
  • Sublimation is a defense mechanism used to convert unacceptable impulses to a more acceptable form or more productive outlets. For instance, someone who has anger management issues may take up boxing as a socially acceptable way to vent his frustration.
  • Projection is a passive aggressive defense mechanism used to protect the ego that involves projecting undesirable or unacceptable thoughts, feelings, or impulses onto someone else. For instance, someone who dislikes another person and feels guilty about it may believe that it is the other person who does not like him.
  • Intellectualization is a defense mechanism used to avoid thinking about uncomfortable feelings or the reality of a situation by focusing in on the intellectual aspect of it. For instance, someone with cancer may distance himself from the stressful reality of his diagnosis by delving deep into research about it.
  • Rationalization is a defense mechanism used to distort the facts or explain something away as a way to make a behavior, feeling, impulse, or situation easier to accept.  For instance, a woman suffering from domestic violence may rationalize that her husband really is a good person who doesn’t mean to hurt her.
  • Regression is a defense mechanism used to reduce anxiety by abandoning developed coping skills and reverting back to earlier stages of development. For instance, a child who fears starting first grade may begin wetting his pants. An adult may throw a temper tantrum when she doesn’t get her way.
  • Reaction Formation is a defense mechanism used to hide true feelings by behaving in an opposite way. For instance, a boy who likes a girl may bully her to cover up his feelings. Someone may act prim and proper to hide his sexual obsessions.

Defense mechanisms such as denial may be used when one’s sense of control, ego, or safety is threatened and anytime he feels fragile or vulnerable. He may deny that a problem exists or minimize its significance. He may claim that no options exist so he doesn’t have to do anything to resolve it.

Denial may be used to maintain relationships with partners, spouses, children, or other family members. Excuses and justifications are made or heads are buried in the sand when a spouse cheats, a child has an eating disorder or is on drugs, or a parent is abusive.

Many people are in denial about the reality of death. Senior citizens may refuse to make arrangements for their nearing funerals, burials, and estates, or may refuse to discuss their plans and wishes with family members.

Someone with a chronic or terminal illness may deny that it exists, avoiding medical care that could potentially save or prolong her life. Someone with mental health issues may not take her medicine, denying that she needs it. Or someone with personal or emotional issues may refuse to seek counseling that could help make her life better.

Substance abusers and those with other addictions deny that have a problem because they do not want to stop using or engaging in self-destructive behaviors. They will deny that the problem is as bad as others think it is and/or claim they have it under control.

Those with anger issues may claim that they are not angry or that someone else is responsible for making them act the way they do.  They may justify their verbal aggression with the fact that they never actually hit anyone.

Fear of facing or changing one’s self may cause the person to use denial with excuses such as: “I am who I am and cannot change,” and “I have tried before and failed therefore I refuse to try again.

Someone may choose to see a situation as hopeless so he doesn’t have to do anything about it, or insist that he is the only one capable of taking care of a problem; that he doesn’t need anyone else’s help.

Those who suffered childhood abuse at the hands of their parents may describe their childhood as being normal or happy. They may claim that their parents were strict but loving or say that they were not abused because their parents never hit them, when in actuality the emotional abuse scarred them deeply. Or they may claim that the physical abusive was just punishment given for their own good; that it made them better people.

Denial may be used individually or as a group mentality, as in the case of a nation who refuses to acknowledge sinister or self-serving political motives. Countries risk their future by denying the realities before them. History repeats itself when groups of people deny that catastrophic mass murder exterminations such as the Holocaust ever occurred.

The use of denial can be dangerous:

  • when someone refuses to accept the seriousness of a problem
  • when someone is clearly on the brink of suicide and no one wants to believe her
  • when people who engage in unhealthy behaviors deny that what they do is harmful or life threatening
  • when parents enable their children’s destructive behavior while denying that there are self-serving reasons for doing so
  • when a business or company is obviously failing and its employees do not preemptively find employment elsewhere
  • when a property is in foreclosure or a renter faces an eviction and the resident or owner ignores the problem
  • when we live beyond our means or max out our credit cards and end up with debt we cannot afford to pay back
  • when issues are not dealt with and problems get worse
  • when issues are repressed for long periods of time

Denial should only be used as a temporary measure to help us cope with unexpected trauma or to absorb the shock when something suddenly overwhelms us. It is perfectly healthy to put off dealing with something until we have time to process it or adapt to it.

To counteract the habit of using denial as a coping mechanism, practice feeling and expressing emotions as they come up. Avoid hiding or burying them just because they may feel uncomfortable. Muster up the courage to face yourself as you are and admit what needs to be changed. Explore the negative consequences you have faced or may face through avoidance and procrastination.

Share your feelings with those you trust, within the safety of a support group, in a private journal or with a qualified mental health provider.

Understand that change takes effort and time. Your habits took time to form and they will take time to break. Always be patient with yourself.

Randi Fine is the author of the groundbreaking book Close Encounters of the Worst Kind: The Narcissistic Abuse Survivor’s Guide to Healing, the most comprehensive, most well researched, and most up-to-date book on this subject. In addition to helping survivors recognize their abuse and heal from it, this book teaches mental health professionals how to recognize and properly treat the associated abuse syndrome. She is also the author of Cliffedge Road: A Memoir, the first and only book to characterize the life-long progression of complications caused by narcissistic child abuse.

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