In the face of a stressful, upsetting, or traumatic event, many of us unconsciously refuse to accept it really happened.1 Encountering an unpleasant truth — such as losing your job, learning that someone you trust has deceived you, or receiving a cancer diagnosis — may be so unsettling that our minds automatically reject it. This reaction is both normal and common, and everyone experiences it from time to time.
Denial can offer us space away from these situations so we can come to terms with them. However, it’s easy to cross the line between healthy and unhealthy coping mechanisms when denial becomes easier to live with than the truth. In this article, we’ll uncover where denial comes from, when it can help us, and what to do when it goes too far.
The concept of denial in psychology was first introduced by famous psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. He proposed that denial is the refusal to acknowledge disturbing aspects of your life, both things that happen to you and your thoughts, memories, and feelings.2 His daughter and fellow psychoanalyst, Anna Freud, later analyzed and expanded upon denial as one of ten major defense mechanisms.3
We can outline three primary types of denial:
This is the most straightforward kind of denial. A person experiencing simple denial rejects the reality or truth of an overwhelming situation. For example, someone going through a breakup might initially deny it’s happening, but then later come to accept the end of the relationship.
While technically a separate defense mechanism, projection is rooted in denial. It occurs when a person accepts the truth of a stressful event and its severity but shifts the blame onto someone else, denying their role (or lack thereof) in the situation. A family member might blame a surgeon for the death of a loved one during an operation, or someone who caused a car crash by being distracted may blame the other car for being in their way. Projection often serves as a way to fuel anger towards an external source.
When a person accepts that something has happened or is happening but doesn’t admit to the situation’s severity, they are experiencing minimization. For example, a person admits to drinking too frequently but refuses to see it as a problem or admit they’re becoming addicted. The minimization phase can be short-lived, but some people minimize certain issues indefinitely.
Mental health experts have expanded this list to include other types of denial, particularly in the areas of substance abuse psychology and even bipolar disorder, but the coping mechanism can manifest differently depending on your situation.1
Denial is a normal response to stressful or traumatic events and can offer us the mental and emotional space we need to accept what has happened. In the short-term, denial may help with:4
Anna Freud, who worked primarily in the realms of child and adolescent psychology, claimed that denial is helpful at a young age. It temporarily protects the developing mind from distress and trauma, repressing traumatic memories until the child has grown and can understand them through the eyes — and brain — of an adult.1
Contemporary research has found in several studies that people who minimized or denied their childhood traumas are more likely to have a positivity bias, which is the tendency to focus on the positive aspects of life rather than the negative. Positivity biases can be protective against depression and similar mental health conditions.4 However, long-term denial can become quite harmful, leading to maladaptive behaviors, unhealthy habits, and even making the situation worse.5
Depending on your situation, denial can manifest in different ways. Identifying these troubling behaviors or mindsets is the first step in helping yourself or a loved one move forward. Let’s take a look at four common situations where denial comes into play.
Denial can enter relationships in times of trouble, such as infidelity, breaking one another’s trust, and, most severely, in cycles of abuse and violence. Here, denial can help to lessen immediate distress. If an important relationship has ended, putting the event in the back of your mind can help you devote yourself to other tasks, such as moving out or finding another place to live, until you can better deal with the emotional toll.
Domestic and emotional abuse holds denial at the center of their cycles. The cycle of abuse is made up of four stages:6
The abuser or victim may minimize or deny the severity of the abuse to convince the victim to remain in the relationship. The victim can also minimize or rationalize the situation by convincing themselves that the abuse was their fault, or that it will not happen again because the abuser has promised to change.7 The cycle then begins again.
In this situation, living in denial can become dangerous and threaten the victim’s life unless they accept the reality of the abuse and escape.6 Escaping abuse sounds easier than it is, as the period right after leaving is the most dangerous time for victims.
If you’re in a dangerous situation or are experiencing domestic violence, you’re not alone. When you break free from the denial, you can call 1-800-799-7233 or text START to 88788 to connect with the National Domestic Violence Hotline and get help.
Losing someone beloved to us can cause great emotional and physical upheaval. Denial plays a big part in how we perceive the loss and can determine how we move forward. After all, denial is the first step in Elizabeth Kuber-Ross’s five stages of grief:1
The news of the sudden or unexpected death of a loved one can be disturbing and shocking enough for the subconscious to reject it. This way, the immediate grief is kept at bay while we process the news and perform tasks that need to be done. Many report a feeling of numbness and a sense of operating on “autopilot” in the early days of bereavement. These feelings are a normal, healthy response to losing a loved one.8 With time and healing, the person eventually reaches some acceptance, although that journey looks different for everyone. as long as denial moves into the next stage and onward to acceptance.
Problems arise when we get stuck in denial. Long-term denial can prevent us from accepting the loss, healing, and moving forward. Not facing this new reality can lead to maladaptive behaviors such as avoiding family and friends, failing to acknowledge that the loved one is no longer alive, poor communication, paranoia, substance abuse, and suicidal thoughts.8 It’s important to note that although this model pertains to the death of loved ones, it can apply to any great loss: a friendship, a career, or even an item of sentimental value.
Similar to grief, experiencing trauma can also cause denial. Denial can occur after witnessing or being in an accident, being the victim or witnessing a violent crime, or experiencing abuse, among other things. To protect our minds, we can deny the event occurred, minimize the severity of it, or avoid talking about it. As mentioned before, this benefits us in the short term, but experiencing trauma has its own side effects. Traumatic experiences can lead to:4
The above conditions and problems can be exacerbated by refusing to accept the truth of a situation. A big part of resolving and healing from trauma is accepting the event happened and learning how to move on from it.
One recent example of trauma denial and its effects is the COVID-19 pandemic.
An article published in the Journal of the Italian Society of Psychiatry linked trauma denial to non-compliance during the pandemic. Though the study focuses more on collective trauma (as opposed to individual trauma) and the connection between higher levels of skepticism and conspiracy theories or political ideologies, the data indicates that people who found the virus unsettling, disturbing, and stressful struggled to manage these emotions. They were more likely to create conspiracies, not comply with public health measures such as masks and social distancing, and grow frustrated when others did not share their views.9
For these people, it was likely easier to believe that the COVID-19 virus was a hoax and to deny the effectiveness of public health solutions than to face the reality of a deadly, highly contagious virus. In the United States, denial of COVID-19 led to careless and senseless behaviors, such as purposely gathering in groups to minimize the severity of the pandemic and spreading misinformation.9
Addiction can come in many forms. Some of the most common addictions stem from substance abuse, particularly alcohol, tobacco, and illicit drugs. A hallmark symptom of an addiction is denial: the person struggling with substance abuse does not want to admit they are losing control of the habit, nor do they want to admit to the harm it’s caused in their relationships. Minimizing the severity of the addiction, blaming another person for it, or pretending to be in control are all signs of denial and actually occur during the pre-contemplation period of early recovery.10
Because admitting to having an addiction means dealing with the consequences, many addicts remain in a state of denial. They may also feel too ashamed to admit the addiction. Realizing the harm they’ve caused to their loved ones, relationships, careers, and health is too painful and difficult, so they try to numb the pain.11 For example, someone with a gambling addiction might deny they have a problem and continue to spend money until they fall into financial hardship. To cope, they may turn to substance abuse, such as alcohol, to continue denying and repressing the difficult feelings.
Substance abuse can have severe long-term physical, mental, and neurological health effects if left untreated. Unfortunately, addiction and denial are intertwined; one perpetuates the other. This makes it difficult for people with substance abuse disorders to seek help, which is why the first step in programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous is to admit you have a problem. Admitting you have an addiction undercuts denial and breaks down the resistance to seeking help.11
There are many ways to break through the illusions of long-term denial. The first step is getting in touch with your feelings. Notice how you feel about a specific situation. Do you find yourself trying to avoid or numb that feeling? Do you try to pretend it doesn't bother you as much as it does? Do you notice any specific patterns about your feelings?
From there, a good next step is allowing yourself to have an honest conversation with someone you trust who has a different view of the matter. Practice active listening: don’t just hear what they’re saying, but try to understand their perspective fully and empathize with their individual circumstances. If something conflicts with your sense of reality, note this to yourself and reflect on it rather than just discrediting them or pushing them away.
Another way to work through denial is to practice a common therapeutic technique called grounding. Grounding can be any activity that forces you to be in the moment. These activities might include breathing, mindfulness, and stretching exercises. It could also be as simple as making bread from scratch. Whatever grounding activity you choose, the important thing is to prioritize activities that focus on the here-and-now. If you notice your mind wandering, return to your five senses or focus on the breath. These activities force you to live in the present and may ease your anxiety about the matter you have difficulty accepting.
If denial is causing dissociation, sleeplessness, behavior changes, or something more severe, it's important to reach out to a mental health professional. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can provide patients with better coping strategies and tools to more effectively manage their emotions, assisting them in moving past denial towards acceptance and healing.5
It’s important to note that acceptance can, at times, be painful. Denial often feels safe, and acceptance often feels highly vulnerable. Furthermore, acceptance isn’t a one-time process. You may need to practice acceptance many, many times before coming to terms with a particularly distressing situation.
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Denial. (n.d.). www.psychologytoday.com. Retrieved January 19, 2023, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/denial#denial-in-everyday-life
Costa, R. M. (2017). Denial (Defense Mechanism). Zeigler-Hill, V., Shackelford, T. Encyclopedia of Personality and Individual Differences. Springer, Cham. https://link.springer.com/referenceworkentry/10.1007/978-3-319-28099-8_1373-1
Bailey, R., & Pico, J. (2022, May 29). Defense Mechanisms. In StatPearls. StatPearls Publishing. Retrieved January 19, 2023 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK559106/
Why It’s Important to Work Through Trauma Denial. (2021, November 12). Psych Central. https://psychcentral.com/blog/denial-of-trauma-signs#denial-in-unresolved-trauma
Mayo Clinic. (2022, December 13). Complicated grief. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/complicated-grief/symptoms-causes/syc-20360374
4 Stages In The Cycle Of Abuse And How To Heal - Makin Wellness. (2021). https://www.makinwellness.com/cycle-of-abuse/
Are You Overlooking or Rationalizing Abuse? That’s Denial! (n.d.). Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/toxic-relationships/201912/are-you-overlooking-or-rationalizing-abuse-thats-denial
What Does Denial Look Like After a Loss? - Krause Funeral Home & Cremation Services. (n.d.). Www.krausefuneralhome.com. https://www.krausefuneralhome.com/blog/what-does-denial-look-like-after-a-loss/
Salone, A., Ciavoni, L., Muzio, I., & Santovito, M. (2021). Società Italiana di Psichiatria Anatolia Salone Evidence-based Psychiatric Care. 7, 134–140. https://doi.org/10.36180/2421-4469-2021-21
Kelley, R., March 10, Nremtl. U., & 2022. (n.d.). Addiction Denial: Symptoms, Behaviors & How To Help. American Addiction Centers. https://americanaddictioncenters.org/rehab-guide/addiction-denial
The Role of Denial in Addiction. (2018). Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/science-choice/201811/the-role-denial-in-addiction