We all use defense mechanisms to protect ourselves psychologically from uncomfortable thoughts, feelings, and experiences. Some defense mechanisms are more adaptive to the ego, while others are more primitive. One of the more primitive is denial. Everyone uses it occasionally, but it is generally maladaptive, and part of the personality structure in people with substance abuse disorders, schizophrenia, hypomania, hysteric personalities and Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
One way to defend ourselves from unpleasant experiences is to refuse to accept that they are happening. For example, denial is an almost automatic response when there is a catastrophe or when someone important to us dies. This is a natural throwback to the magical sort of thinking of a typical toddler: “If I do not believe it, then it is not happening.” On the positive side, we all use denial to some extent because it can make life a little more pleasant. For example, believing that a cynical friend who speaks ill of everyone would never speak that way about you, since the two of you are so close. Also, in situations requiring heroic bravery, such as running into a burning building to save a child, a sense of denial is necessary given the serious danger that may be present.
More often, though, denial contributes poorly to a person’s psychological and personal outcome. There can be a Pollyannaish quality to denial—everything will turn out for the best despite any evidence to the contrary. For example, someone who refuses to go to the dentist out of fear is ignoring their dental health and is at a greater risk for tooth decay or gum disease, yet they magically believe that the cavities will somehow disappear. More extreme examples include alcoholics who refuse to admit that they have a drinking problem, or parents who refuse to admit that a neighbor is molesting their child—this is denial at its worst.
If you are interested in working through issues psychologically such as depression or in need of marital counseling and live in Orange County, Irvine, or Newport Beach, please call me, Jennifer De Francisco, LCSW at (949) 251-8797.