Denial is a Defense Mechanism


I was part of a discussion last week on the subject of denial. Because denial has many layers, I thought I’d dive deeper into the meaning.

Relating to someone’s inability to see the dire shape a situation or relationship in their life might be in, we’ve all heard or used the phrase “He’s/She’s just in denial.”

But what does it actually mean to be “in denial?”

Merriam-Webster’s definition of denial:  Refusal to admit the truth or reality of something, refusal to acknowledge of something unpleasant (and as a term of Psychology): denial is defense mechanism in which confrontation with a personal problem or with reality is avoided by denying the existence of the problem or reality.


Why do we go into denial?

“Denial is a defense mechanism.”

Have you ever heard or witnessed something so terrible that your mind couldn’t absorb it as true?  I have. I’ve seen truth hit so hard or seem so horrific that the mind couldn’t immediately grasp it.  Our brain has what I believe to be “shock absorbers.”

An example I will never forget, when my son was in the second grade a well-known and dearly loved teacher at his school was hit between two vehicles and killed in the school parking lot.  This happened a few feet from where we were standing.  It was a confusing, shocking scene.  Every second seemed to slow down as the world went silent around us.

My first thoughts were that it had to be a joke, it must be some type of staged presentation.  I couldn’t believe what we were seeing.  I remember thinking this isn’t real, surely this isn’t real.  Everyone seemed to be frozen in the moment.  It was impossible to process what was happening in those first minutes.

In the following weeks when I would see other families who had witnessed it with us, inevitably the shock and sadness of that day would come up.  I was astonished by a common thing most remembered; almost all who were present that day said they too experienced initial thoughts of disbelief, thinking that it wasn’t really happening.

One person after another said “I thought the cars were messing around.  We didn’t think it was real.  I thought it was a joke.”

It took time for everyone to grasp that something this horrendous could be reality.


There are times when reality is too shocking and painful to take in all at once.  Especially when it’s a truth that will turn your world upside down.

In relation to having a son, daughter or other Loved One possibly having a frightening addiction, alcohol problem, or substance use disorder (SUD), truth of this magnitude at first can be extremely challenging to accept.

It takes time.  Acceptance of a painful reality is a process.

If it’s happening to you, be open to the truth and gentle with yourself.  If it’s happening to someone you know, tread lightly and with compassion.


“Everything was perfect and healthy here in Denial Land.”  ~Jim Butcher

We have heard of those who “take a blind eye” to a Loved One’s destructive behavior.  I’ve heard this blind eye theory said many times about someone living in the midst of another’s addiction, deception, or betrayal.

I have to say…I don’t know that I personally believe anyone having clear knowledge of something damaging is simply turning their head and allowing it.

I tend to look deeper, I believe they very possibly know something is wrong; but aren’t yet sure what it is.

Maybe they’ve been made aware, but are still looking for any evidence possible that it’s not true. Holding onto hope that what’s happening is something else, something a little less than terrible.

It’s also very possible they’re being lied to by someone they love and think they can trust, while being told they’re crazy to suspect anything.  And they’re not sure what to believe.

Whatever the scenario, the acceptance of something life shattering is gradual, it’s a journey.  One that involves grief and soul searching.

People come to truth and understanding at their own pace.  If a situation becomes urgent enough, our eyes might be forced open. But even still, acceptance takes time.

In the meantime, the best thing a bystander can offer is kindness and the absence of judgment.


An Honest Look in the Mirror

“Often when someone strives to be publicly awesome, they’re privately awful” ~ Dad

I recently learned about another type of denial on a Dr. Drew Pinsky podcast, this version is referred to as the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

This effect occurs when someone has a blindness concerning their assessment of self.  There are some who have a very hard time examining their own behavior patterns, leading to inflated, delusional self-awareness.

If you’ve ever dealt with someone whose behavior was shockingly selfish, incompetent or unethical, yet describe themselves grandiosely to be of great moral integrity; and they’re not only clueless that their behavior is off, they’re confident that it’s acceptable and justified, you likely saw the Dunning-Kruger Effect at work.

A common cause of this lack of self-realization is an injured, fragile ego. This person needs to see themselves different. Blindness to self can also develop out of the habit of justifying wrong behaviors, or masking areas of fear and shame.

Sometimes a dulled self-perception is caused by substance use.

(Sometimes all of the above.)

For whatever reason, one can veer unbelievably far from truth and reality with no way of knowing how to just drop it and get real.  And then it becomes ingrained with what they believe.

These are instances when a person is literally unable to assess themselves realistically.  They don’t get it, they can’t see it, they don’t hear it.

When dealing with this, arguing the facts does more damage than good.  You will only find yourself on a fast track to frustration.

Don’t give up hope that one day they may become aware of themselves, it happens!  But well-being can’t be hinged upon it happening. Step back, be kind, set boundaries to protect your well-being and pursue your own peace of mind.


To reduce the risk of becoming blind about ourselves, accountability plus humility, combined with openness to truth – is a great equation.

“Truth is what works.”  ~William James

There is nothing in this world that truth combined with humility, compassion and kindness can’t at least help; if not heal.

Still learning,


Author of books: Unhooked, and Unbroken, Navigating the Madness of Family Dysfunction, Addiction, Alcoholism and Heartache

Host of:  The Unhooked Podcast

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For information, comfort, encouragement and support:

Codependents Anonymous

Parent Support – TAPU

Family Recovery Support