People always speak disparagingly about those who they perceive to be in denial. “She’s in denial,” they say in disapproving tones, “He needs to get real.”
The truth, however, is that we all use denial regularly. Denial is a defense mechanism – a way of avoiding realities or facts that make us uncomfortable when the reality is too painful or shameful, embarrassing or threatening. In other words, it is a way we all defend ourselves from the pain of reality. Denial can also to keep us from getting in trouble; to give it up can feel very dangerous and frightening if it means facing consequences.
“Getting real,” then, represents a tug of war of sorts: there are powerful reasons for honesty and powerful reasons for denial. Sometimes, denial can be helpful for coping and should not be given up. For example, when someone we love goes in for a dangerous surgical procedure, denial can help us get through that time with hope and calm and survive the hours. However, denial can also be dangerous and unhealthy, as it can prevent us from getting the help we need.
Regardless of whether it is important or unhealthy, however, it is something we all can relate to and struggle with. And it is something worth getting more conscious about, because the more we can see it, the more we are free to make choices about it.
Samantha Smithstein, Psy.D.