denial defense mechanism

Defense Mechanism of the Week: Denial

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 the denial defense mechanism. 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.

Unfortunately, defaulting to this defense mechanism can harm relationships just as much as it can harm an individual. Keep reading to learn more about denial as a defense mechanism and how it can impact relationships.

What is the Denial Defense Mechanism?

A defense mechanism is a coping strategy that a person uses to deal with upsetting or difficult situations. The idea of denial as a defense mechanism was first explained by Sigmund Freud. In his explanation, denial is a refusal “to acknowledge upsetting facts about external events and internal ones, including memories, thoughts, and feelings.” 

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 because 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 ignores their dental health and is at a greater risk for tooth decay or gum disease, but 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.

How Denial Can Affect Relationships

Denial can affect the dynamics of all relationships in a person’s life by leading them to ignore their own or their partner’s feelings, disagreements within the relationship, and other issues. Pretending that everything is fine may provide comfort and satisfaction at first, but in the long run, it causes relationships to deteriorate. When relationship problems aren’t acknowledged, they can’t be resolved. It’s difficult, but confronting problems head-on is always the best way to keep relationships healthy and thriving.

Talk to a Marriage Therapist in Newport Beach

If you feel that denial or another defense mechanism is negatively affecting your relationship, seeking help from a marriage therapist in Newport Beach may help you come to terms with and resolve these issues.

Jennifer De Francisco, MPA, MSW, LCSW, is a couples therapist in Newport Beach, CA, for couples at any stage in their relationship. Her approach provides a safe environment to openly and honestly share thoughts and emotions. Through developing a positive, therapeutic relationship, you and your partner can interpret what is going on, both in your life and in the session, creating a better awareness within your relationship. Contact Jennifer De Francisco by calling (949) 251-8797 or make an appointment online.

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