Denial, sometimes referred to as an acronym for “Don’t Even Know I Am Lying,” is one of the most common defense mechanisms. Denial is widely recognised in mental health fields, and it is relevant in experiences of witnessing, inflicting, and/or surviving trauma. While denial can be quite effective in the short-term, it is often harmful in the long-term. Staying stuck in denial interferes with change.
What is Denial?
Denial is the refusal to accept reality in order to protect yourself from a painful event, thought, or feeling. It is a defense mechanism that gives you time to adjust to distressing life situations.
Denial can be present for anything that evokes vulnerability or threatens your sense of control. This could be illness, racism, addiction, anger issues, financial problems, or relationship conflicts. You can be in denial around something happening directly to you or something happening to another person. Denial can occur on an individual level and also on broader system levels, such as in family, social, or cultural contexts.
Denial is universal— everyone perceives events through personal bias. Yet the process of denial is complex, and it is (at least initially) mostly implicit and unconscious. However, you can recognise and challenge denial through an ongoing process of radical honesty and self-examination. This process can give you insight or encourage movement if you are stuck.
When undergoing self-examination, it often helps to use a holistic approach that includes mind, body, and soul.
Examining the Mind
Exploring your inner dialogue (self-talk) and outer dialogue are useful strategies in the self-examination of denial. Try to see if you are using cognitive distortions such as rationalising, minimising, and intellectualising. These are used to alter the perception of reality, and they may suggest denial is ultimately at play.
Using the example of a conflict in a toxic relationship, consider the following:
Rationalising: Explaining events with seemingly logical reasons, even if these are not true or appropriate, in an attempt to avoid the true explanation: “If the house was clean, he would not have been upset with me.”
Minimising: Downplaying the significance or consequences of an event or emotion: “He only grabbed me when I was trying to leave.”
Intellectualising: Focusing on practicalities in order to distract oneself from emotional thoughts: “If he leaves me, I could spend more time with friends, do my favorite activities, travel more, etc.”
These cognitive distortions are indicators that you may be stuck in denial. Also be on the lookout phrases or keywords which may signal that you’re engaging in a cognitive bias:
Examining what is being thought or said is relevant in the self-examination of denial. Examining the unsaid is also important. Consider what you are avoiding. What are you refusing to think about? What will you not talk about? What situation, past or present, won’t be acknowledged? What facts won’t you face? Honestly examine what you fear, then evaluate the potential negative consequences of not taking action.
Examining the Body
Numbness, disconnection, and/or dissociation often occur with denial. These symptoms are suggestive of a trauma reaction in the nervous system: the freeze response. Somatic awareness can be a useful tool in addressing denial and the freeze response. Increasing somatic awareness means learning to feel your body and making your visceral experience more conscious.
To increase your somatic awareness, try the following exercise:
Use the 5 senses (sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch) to externally orient to your environment.
Notice what happens internally as you receive information from the environment through your senses (i.e. sound made your heart rate increase, sight was calming, etc.).
Shift focus to identifying internal sensations (i.e. notice intensity, muscle, skin, temperature, constriction, expansion, and whole-body sensations).
Bring to mind what you may be denying and notice what internal sensations you experience. If you are unaware of what you are denying, simply continue to notice sensations, as well as any thoughts, images, emotions, or impulses that arise.
Stay with the experience, just noticing, until you experience sensations that are settling and pleasant, such as less constriction, more breath, and more presence.
Practice the exercise regularly. As your somatic awareness increases, continue to intentionally seek out sensations and practice staying with the discomfort.
Examining the Self
Denial has been described as a shock absorber for the soul. Attending to the soul refers to examining a deeper connection or relationship to yourself and others.
One sign of denial is when you constantly try to prove how good you are, that you are enough, or how much someone has or has not hurt you. Trying to prove yourself to the world may actually suggest that it is you who is not believing how good you are, your worth, or your hurt. Trying to prove yourself often presents as blaming, comparing, or defending. These tactics suggest that not only are you likely in a state of denial, you are also further disconnecting from yourself.
Individuals remain in denial and are unable to hear the truth until they are emotionally ready to cope with it. This often involves having a stable connection to oneself and others. You can deepen your self-connection and self-trust by revisiting past challenges that you have overcome. Take time to identify your abilities, successes, and strengths. You can deepen your connection to others by allowing yourself to express your fears. Consider opening up to a trusted friend or loved one, and/or participate in a support group.
Lastly, identify discrepancies between your values and your behaviours. The discrepancies may suggest denial. If you value love, for example, consider how your actions (or inactions) contribute to experiences of harm or hate. Make sure your internal and external resources are being used in accordance with your values, and reflect on your sense of greater meaning or purpose.
Therapy can be a safe place to get help for denial and other defense mechanisms. When denial has affected a marriage or relationship, couples counseling can be particularly helpful.