Today, you’re going to learn all about denial, why we use it as a coping mechanism, and how to stop being in denial even when the truth is heartbreaking.
We are all in denial about something.
It could be a seemingly small or innocent issue or behavior, such as accepting that you’re drinking too much coffee, or spending too much time on your phone.
Or it can be a much larger and potentially lethal issue, such as full-blown addiction.
No matter how large the issue is, denial is something that holds you back from living a fulfilling life.
Meaning of Denial
Is it a mental illness? Is it a coping mechanism?
Denial is an unconscious coping mechanism that shields us from facing unpleasant external or internal experiences.
In other words, denial shields us from what we don’t want to acknowledge or face yet because we don’t feel ready to handle them. (*)
Sigmund Freud originally developed the concept of denial as a defense mechanism.
Elisabeth Kubler-Ross expanded upon Freud’s model and suggested that denial is the first stage in accepting one’s death.
Can Denial Be Helpful?
Denial in and of itself is not the problem.
Denial can help us heal after going through traumatic experiences, such as grieving the loss a loved one.
Denial functions as a buffer, allowing the person to collect himself, and with time, mobilize other less radical coping mechanisms as he faces the reality of what happens. (*)
When Denial Becomes Harmful…
When denial persists and prevents you from taking appropriate action, such as consulting your doctor when you’ve been experiencing chronic pain, it becomes a harmful response.
Related: Toxic Shame Quiz
Why Step out of denial?
Denial is not just a symptom of addiction.
It is also a symptom of nearly every other disorder or behavior that may be affecting your life in a negative way.
Truth is we are all in denial about something.
You might not be in denial about being a full-blown alcoholic or having a drug problem or a sex addiction.
But no matter significant the issue or behavior, denial is always present and detracting from other areas of your life and preventing you from living your life to the fullest.
Denial is at the heart of anything negative happening to you.
How Denial Works?
Unhealthy denial is usually built over time.
It’s a wall your mind builds around you – brick by brick, every time you lie to cover up your actions or turn a blind eye to a problem.
Eventually the wall of denial shields not only from seeing the reality of your situation but also from recognizing the consequences of your own actions.
Why Do We Get Stuck In Denial?
There are two possible reasons why one might go into denial:
1. You don’t have enough healthy things in your life to turn to
This could mean a lack of social support or not having enough goals and projects to work on and look forward to, or lack of healthy coping skills to face stress in life.
2. Unhealthy things are consuming so much of your time and energy
This is especially true when you feel an emotional void that you try to numb rather than address.
These fixes become habits and create a vicious circle that causes denial to grow.
Why Is It Difficult To Step Out Of Denial?
Denial is a defense mechanism that we use to avoid facing what we don’t believe we’re capable of facing.
The following reasons can make stepping out of denial difficult.
- We don’t think we have a problem.
- We blame someone else for our problem.
- We believe that ignoring a problem can make it go away.
- We’re enabled by those around us.
- The problem isn’t creating enough negative consequences for us.
- We don’t want to feel vulnerable or out of control.
- We fear the blame.
- We are avoiding the work. We don’t realize that being in denial is even more difficult.
- We don’t know how to do the work and get ourselves out of denial.
What Are Signs Of Denial?
Do you relate to any of the following:
- You constantly find yourself falling behind with your work or studies and you can’t seem to figure out why.
- You are losing your friends and having so much trouble making new ones.
- You feel something is missing from your life but you just can’t put a finger on what it is.
- You find yourself wondering why the things you want always seem to be out of reach.
- You often feel angry, depressed, or anxious for no reason.
- You have your friends and family show concern about you.
- You have noticed a decline in your health.
If so, you could have a problem that’s affecting you and even those around you, but denial is preventing you from being aware of it.
What Are Examples Of Denial?
The main things people are in denial about fall into the following five categories:
- Mental health issues
- Physical health issues
- Truth about yourself (including your own role in what happens to you) and others,
1. Mild Denial
Mild denial includes behaviors that are common and pose no direct threat to your health, work, or relationships.
However, they can steal energy and time you could be spending on healthier things.
- Mild video games and computer addiction or phone addiction
- Excessive TV watching
- Addiction to coffee
- Negative personality traits such as jealousy or arrogance.
2. Moderate Denial
These are negative behaviors that could affect your health over time.
- Any mild behavior you’re in denial about that is affecting your life negatively
- Ignoring your true sexual identity
- Debilitating phobias
- Feeling inferior
- Financial irresponsibility
- Ignoring being an abuser
- Ignoring minor mental health issues (OCD, postpartum depression, panic attacks, anxiety, etc.)
- Ignoring minor physical health issues (vision problems, chronic pain, etc.)
- Major digital addiction
- Nicotine addiction
- Problem gambling
- Sexual compulsion
- Work addiction
3. Severe Denial
These are negative behaviors that are so destructive that they pose an immediate threat to the denier’s life or that of someone else.
- Substance abuse
- Ignoring a major physical health issue (high blood pressure, cancer, diabetes, etc.)
- Ignoring other major mental health issues (eating disorders, major depression, PTSD, bipolar disorder, dementia, etc.)
- Ignoring being abused
How To Stop Being In Denial In 10 Steps?
Something needs to happen to make you no longer able to deny the reality of the situation.
It could be noticing the change in your life.
For example, if you have a weight problem, you may find yourself unable to fit into your clothes anymore and having to shop for new ones.
#1. Become Aware of Your Denial
Before you can begin to fix the problem, you need to recognize that you’re in denial.
This is best done by sitting down with yourself and honestly answering assessment questions:
- Do you constantly find yourself falling behind with your work or studies and can’t seem to figure out why?
- Are losing your friends and having so much trouble making new ones?
- Do you feel something is missing from your life but you just can’t put a finger on what it is?
- Do you find yourself wondering why the things you want always seem to be out of reach?
- Do you often feel angry, depressed, or anxious for no reason?
- Are your friends and family showing concern about you?
- Have you noticed a decline in your health?
Answering these questions will help open your eyes to the fact that there may be some issues you’re not aware of or are in denial of.
#2. Examine Your Average Week
If you think you are in denial but can’t figure out yet what you’re in denial of, examining your average week may help.
When your life is imbalanced, it’s because
(1) there is something missing from it, such as love, security, self-esteem,
(2) and/or something unhealthy is being used to fill that void, such as addictions and other self-sabotaging behaviors.
- Look at every single one of your actions every day throughout a week.
- What behaviors are you engaging in that are unhealthy?
- How long have you been leaning on these behaviors?
- What areas of your life may be suffering because of these behaviors?
- What void are you trying to fill in? What’s triggering your unhealthy behaviors?
#3. Increase Your Mindfulness
To be able to identify when you’re engaging in unhealthy behaviors, you need to become more mindful of how you feel before, during, and after you engage in those behaviors.
Practicing mindfulness meditation is a great way to increase your self-awareness.
But mindfulness isn’t only practiced while meditating.
You can practice mindfulness throughout the day by paying attention to your emotions and bodily sensations.
For example, you may focus on how the water feels against your hands when you’re washing them, or focus on how the ground feels against your feet when you’re walking.
When you’re engaging in unhealthy behavior, it’s helpful to check in with yourself and ask:
- What am I feeling in my body? (e.g. Itches, nausea, burning sensation, butterflies in your stomach, tightness in your chest)
- What emotion am I feeling right now? (e.g. boredom, anxiety, fear, sadness, anger)
Use these worksheets to expand your emotions vocabulary and be able to better name your feelings.
- What thoughts am I thinking right now?
- On a scale from 1 to 10, how stressed do I feel right now?
- How do I feel about my action? (e.g. indifferent, shameful, proud)
#4. Analyze You Week
Once you’re done tracking your behavior throughout a week, reflect on the new information.
Try to identify:
- The obvious problem or unhealthy behavior
- The time spent doing this behavior
- The bodily sensations/thoughts/emotions you experience before, during, and after engaging in this behavior
Step 1. Identify The Obvious Problem Or Unhealthy Behavior
To help you identify the obvious problem, try answering the following questions:
- Did you do something this week that you never noticed before and that is concerning?
- Did you feel nervous, embarrassed, or ashamed when engaging in certain activities?
- Are there certain behaviors that you would feel embarrassed if someone else knew about?
Step 2. Analyze The Time Spent On This Behavior
Consider each behavior and the time you spent on it:
- Are you amazed at how much time you spent on certain behaviors?
- Are there activities besides working and sleeping on which you spent more than two hours a day?
You may use these national daily averages compiled by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics to evaluate how reasonable the time you’re spending each day on certain activities.
|Average hours per day 2019
|Average hours per day 2020
|Personal care activities
|Eating and drinking
|Purchasing goods and services
|Caring for and helping household members
|Caring for and helping nonhousehold members
|Working and work-related activities
|Organizational, civic, and religious activities
|Leisure and sports
|Telephone calls, mail, and e-mail
|Other activities, not elsewhere classified
|Total all activities
Step 3. Look At Your Bodily sensations/thoughts/emotions
Consider the bodily sensations, thoughts, and emotions you experience when engaging in certain behaviors:
- Do you tend to engage in certain activities when you’re stressed?
- Do you tend to experience shame or regret after engaging in certain activities?
What Does Engaging In Unhealthy Behavior Feel Like?
Still not sure if a certain behavior is unhealthy? Consider the following signs:
- It takes up so much of your time
- It is not a normal behavior
- It is triggered by stress
- It triggers negative thoughts and emotions
- It leaves you feeling down
#5. Consider Unhealthy Behaviors That Time Audit Alone Won’t Reveal
When working on quitting your unhealthy behavior, it is important to watch out for one of these traps:
- Breaking your unhealthy behavior into smaller parts (e.g. if you have a problem with compulsive shopping, you may purchase only a few items each day)
- Trading it for new unhealthy behavior
- Using it interchangeably with other unhealthy behaviors (e.g. to numb your pain you may use a combination of self-destructive behaviors, such as alcohol, comfort eating, self-harm, etc.)
Such traps can make it difficult for you to face the reality of the situation and come out of denial.
#6. Talk To A Loved One
Choose a safe family member or a trusted friend who has known you for a very long time and who will be honest with you.
Explain to them that you’re looking to quit unhealthy behaviors and ask them if they know of any that you’re not aware of.
#7. Consider The Damage Your Unhealthy Behavior Inflicted
This is a great way to let go of denial and face the reality of the situation, once you identified your unhealthy behavior.
Answer the following questions to help you face the reality of the situation:
- What important events or moments did you miss because of this behavior?
- Who did you hurt among people close to you?
- Are there people who left you and no longer speak to you because of this behavior?
- What opportunities did you lose that could have made your life better?
#8. Identify Your Void
Denial is what keeps you from facing your void.
Your unhealthy behavior is an unconscious attempt to fill in whatever is missing in your life.
While the void is the root issue, it’s only when you stop your unhealthy behavior that you can identify the void and face it.
Therefore, the first step would be abstinence from engaging in your unhealthy behavior.
The next step is to be mindful of your bodily sensations, thoughts, and feelings you experience when you have the urge to engage in your unhealthy behavior.
Answering the following questions can help you identify what’s missing:
- Did something happen in the past that you can’t tell anyone about?
- Is there someone in your past that you can’t forgive?
- What feedback are your emotions giving you about your current needs? If you feel anxious, what do you feel anxious about? If you feel emptiness, what would make you feel less empty?
- Are you pursuing any of your dreams and goals? Are you setting plans to improve your life?
- Are there questions you’ve never had answers for? (e.g. why someone ghosted you, or why a parent couldn’t love you, etc.)
- Do you find it difficult to accept and love yourself?
#9. Take The Right Action
Once you identified the void you’re trying to fill in using your unhealthy behaviors, start making a conscious choice to meet those needs.
- Self-destructive behavior: comfort eating
- Void: lack of self-love and self-connection
- Right Action: connect with my own emotions by naming them and expressing them rather than numbing them
Depending on your needs, try to come up with ideas and action to take that will help you meet those needs.
You may find the following suggestions helpful:
- Best 15 Inner Child Exercises
- Inner Teenager Healing: 14 Proven Exercises to Heal Your Inner Teenager
- How To Stop Love Addiction? Top 5 Proven Steps to Overcome Love Addiction
- What Is Emotional Intimacy? (And How To Increase Emotional Intimacy In A Relationship?)
- How To Break Codependency Habits For Good? Top 13 Codependent Habits to Quit Today
- How To Start A Self Love Journey? Top 10 Powerful Ways to Love Yourself More
- Top 18 Practical Exercise to Build High Self-Esteem
- Best 13 Practical Tools to Help You Feel More Confident
#10. Talk To A Therapist
This might not be something you want to do if you’re in denial.
But speaking with trained therapist can help you face the reality of your situation and figure out a way out. You may find it helpful to bring your week audit with you.
Consider that a therapist is likely to be the most honest, unbiased person you can ask to help you.
- Portions of this article were adapted from the book Face It and Fix It, © 2009 by Ken Seeley. All rights reserved.
Hadiah is a counselor who is passionate about supporting individuals on their journey towards mental well-being. Hadiah not only writes insightful articles on various mental health topics but also creates engaging and practical mental health worksheets.