Denial is serious. It’s a refusal to acknowledge truth or reality. Denial has benefits, but it can lead to our undoing and may even have life-threatening consequences. It affects individuals as well as groups. Denial in the form of “group-think” can dangerously take over families and entire groups. Organizations, subcultures, religious sects, and political zealots can deny abuse, addiction, racism, genocide, corruption, and criminality.
We can deny positive input as well as negative. Denial can restrict the expression of our rights, our power, and our abilities, diminishing our self-esteem and capacity to pursue our goals.
Denial is a Defense Mechanism
It is the first and simplest psychological defense mechanism. Typically, children deny wrongdoing to avoid reprimand. I recall my 4-year old shaking his head while denying from a chocolate-smeared mouth that he’d eaten ice cream in the wee morning hours. Adults deny wrongdoing, too, notably politicians, criminals, abusers, addicts, and adulterers. Conscious lies are usually motivated by self-preservation and fear of punishment. While not admirable, they’re understandable, though less sympathetic when motivated by a quest for power. What’s more troublesome is our denial when we believe them.
Usually, denial is unconscious. We all do it. It can be tricky to uncover something that is unconscious. (See Are You in Denial?) When we deny, we deceive ourselves, we forget, excuse, rationalize, and minimize. We might be aware of the facts, but we deny or minimize the consequences (or not even acknowledge them) while stubbornly refusing to change or get help.