“Dude, she’s so in denial.” Have you ever heard this sentence casually thrown around? Has anyone ever accused you of being in denial? Or maybe you’ve referred to being in denial yourself, playfully or otherwise? I definitely have. Which is why I think it’s so important for us to understand denial management.
In these instances, it sounds like “denial” is synonymous with procrastination or the avoidance of something somewhat unpleasant. The problem with hearing “being in denial” mentioned like this, is that it’s not conveying its actual meaning.
And if you’re working off of this understanding of denial, it can lead to confusion or frustration when we encounter someone who is actually in denial.
So let’s get some clarification on what denial actually is so we can better understand it as an idea, and also understand what it’s like for someone who’s experiencing it.
If you try to google the definition of denial, right away you’re going to run into some issues. First of all, you’ll get a non-psychology definition regarding “refusal” or “declaring something untrue,” for instance. True definitions of the word, sure, but not what we are talking about here. Denial management is so much more.
So you have to dig a little deeper for the definition in relation to the world of psychology. And then, much to my dismay, you might stumble into a definition that looks like this, “A phrase used to describe someone who refuses to accept the truth.”
I find this to be what people generally imagine “denial” is, and while it isn’t completely inaccurate, it does describe an aspect of denial in a way that is completely false: the idea that “denial” is voluntary.
If someone “refuses to accept the truth,” that sounds very much like that individual is making a conscious decision to ignore or distort what is true, and while that does happen, that is not what being in denial really means.
But not all coping mechanisms are things we actively choose, like exercising or talking to a supportive friend.
Being “in denial” refers to when we truly cannot see our reality, or we cannot see some aspect of it, because to have a full understanding of that reality would be, essentially, too much for us to handle.
In other words, your subconscious brain is protecting your conscious brain from seeing the truth of your situation, in whole or in part, because it just be too soul-crushing and you aren’t ready yet.
(More on that “yet” later on.)
The big takeaways are:
1) Being in denial is not a choice
2) It’s self-protective
3) It is possible to overcome being in denial
Consider this your denial management workflow.
It’s important to understand that denial is not a choice so that you are able to feel more compassion for someone who seems to be in denial about something, instead of feeling frustrated or confused. You also need to know you didn’t choose being in denial yourself if you are looking back at your past and wondering, “How did I not see that??”
While it may in fact be confusing or frustrating if someone is keeping themselves in harm’s way due to denial, for instance, I think it can help a lot to know that they aren’t doing it on purpose just to be difficult. They really aren’t ready to face the truth, or at least the whole truth, and their brain knows it.
Which brings us back to the idea that denial exists on a spectrum.
Someone who is in denial can be anywhere from, “Yeah, this is a problem but I’m not going to deal with it,” to “Ehhh it’s not THAT big of a problem,” to “Problem? What problem?”
Now, I want to pause here and say that not all denial is problematic.
If you think about it, we all are probably engaging in some level of denial. For instance, there is one particular denial management workflow we are utilizing every single day:
The fact that we know we won’t live forever.
Not to be dark, but we’re all going to die someday and if we were constantly and painfully aware of that very real reality, it would make it hard to live our lives in a way that felt happy and meaningful.
So while we aren’t oblivious to our mortality, most people aren’t thinking about that at every moment of every day. We minimize the truth of our temporary existence (and not really consciously) so that we can make long-term decisions, set goals for ourselves, enjoy the present, dream about the future, etc.
It’s a way of accepting the unavoidable while also letting it fall to the side of our conscious thoughts, so that the harsh truth of it doesn’t breed a paralyzing fear of living or an existential depression.
That being said, there are definitely times when being in denial is not helping us and in those instances, it’s more of an unhealthy coping mechanism. We see examples of this in unhealthy and even abusive relationships, struggles with addiction, avoidance of receiving regular or necessary medical care, and more.
At the core of each of these scenarios is a deep, unconscious sense of overwhelm with the actual truth or the possibility of what could be true.
And that’s simply because sometimes life gets really, really hard or scary and our subconscious brain is able to recognize what we are ready to handle and what is beyond our current abilities.
So for example:
Someone in an unhealthy relationship might truly not be able to comprehend how unhealthy it is until they are actually ready and able to do something about it.
Someone struggling with addiction may not be able to see how bad it is, because on a deep level, they know they can’t stop on their own – terrifying – and they aren’t sure what to do.
Someone with a scary physical symptom may brush it off and not seek medical care because once you go to a doctor, you can’t control what the diagnosis is and the idea of cancer too freaking scary to wrap their mind around right now.
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Because until you’re ready and able to make a change, what’s the point of being aware of how bad something is?
That’s miserable, unproductive, and at its worst, incapacitating. And not being able to change a frightful reality definitely won’t help you think clearly or problem-solve, which are abilities you need to change your situation. Your brain knows this and so you are protected – until you have the increased ability to handle the whole truth.
This leads me to the big question: how can someone overcome being in denial?
How do you get better prepared to handle the whole scary truth if you don’t even realize you can’t?
The answer is by increasing your ability to cope with big life stuff. Remember that denial is a coping mechanism. If you can add other better tools to your toolbox of coping skills, your brain can recognize that strengthening.
So maybe you get further along in your journey of personal growth and increase your ability to think through and manage difficult aspects of your life and experience.
Maybe you build in better and more reliable systems of support that can help carry you through challenging times.
Maybe you start having more conversations with friends you trust, or your life coach or therapist, and you start gently getting outside perspectives that slowly increase your awareness of your situation at a pace that is bearable.
Maybe you finally discover and embrace the idea of hope – that no matter what you’re facing, it is possible for you to overcome it and come out the other side.
So if you have someone in your life who seems to be in denial, know that the truth you’re able to see clearly is something they aren’t consciously choosing to neglect – they really aren’t ready.
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And when it’s someone you love, I know it can be really hard to let them stay in denial when you’re afraid for them or you can envision how much better their life could be if they would only [fill in the blank].
This is where acceptance and letting go are going to be your best friends.
You have to accept that it’s their life and their abilities that have to get them through their situation, and only they have the power to make that happen. You have to let go of wanting to snap them out of their denial, even when that seems like it would be best, and love and support them where they are.
And if you’re looking back on your own life, kicking yourself for “not seeing it sooner,” then take a deep breath and forgive yourself for needing the time and space to get stronger before you could see things clearly for what they were. Give yourself credit for moving beyond that place at all, because that doesn’t always happen, tragically enough.
Because YOU DID IT.
You did the hard thing and overcame a situation that, for a time, was the scariest thing you actually couldn’t envision yourself facing. Your strength is worth celebrating. And from now on, you’ll be that much more ready to handle whatever life throws your way.