Denial is often a defense mechanism for people living with grief or trauma. If your loved one is in denial, there are ways you can help.
When someone you love minimizes, avoids, or denies a painful situation they’ve experienced, it may be confusing, frustrating, or exhausting for you.
What you feel is natural and realizing they aren’t doing this on purpose might help you. Denial may be a way they’ve developed to cope with past hurts.
By understanding why denial happens in the first place, you may feel better equipped to respond with care and compassion.
Talking with someone you love who’s in denial may prove to be a challenge, but there are some ways to make it easier for both of you.
Learn as much as you can
Whatever your loved one is going through, be it grief, trauma, or something else, find out as much as you can about the event from other sources.
This may help you understand and empathize with them, and realize how much they need the space.
See it differently
Denial can offer benefits.
“The silver lining is that the individual with denial still has some fighting spirit left in them — a desire for self-preservation,” says Timothy Yen, a psychologist in Dublin, California.
“The brain is wired for our survival and does everything in its power to keep us alive. If the distressing situation is going to cause pain, the brain will find creative ways to keep those kinds of experiences away from the individual,” he says.
Knowing this can help you be more compassionate. In the same way you wouldn’t want to pull off a bandage before someone’s wound has started the healing process, you may not want to fight denial.
Your intuitive reaction may be to make someone face the music and deal with reality, says Yen, but this isn’t necessarily the best approach.
“It is important to remember that the person may not have the capacity to deal with reality head-on at that very moment,” he says. “You could start by sharing your feelings and thoughts about a situation and create space for the person to stay in denial.
“It is like planting small seeds of truth that can hopefully sink in for later,” he adds.
You may find it helpful to think of something in your own life that was difficult for you to face.
Remember how scary or painful that felt, then show up the way you would’ve wanted someone to show up for you: with grace.
You don’t have to co-sign someone’s self-harming behavior, but you can still provide a safe place to help them process the pain.
Consider signaling that it’s OK to be vulnerable with a calm demeanor, open body language, and softness in your voice.
Be an active listener
It’s common for loved ones in pain to give excuses for their behavior. When you hear this happen, try not to get defensive. Instead, try active listening.
You can repeat what they say back to them in the form of a question, to encourage them to clarify what they mean.
Restating what you heard can help someone hear — truly hear — what is being said. It can also carve out space to dig a little deeper.
Use ‘I’ statements
If someone seems open to a discussion, you can dip your toes in the water and see how they react when you express concerns.
Consider using “I” statements with love and state how their actions are making you feel.
It may sound like:
- I feel scared when you drink at work then drive home.
- I feel concerned when you don’t take your medication.
- I feel upset when you set the table for our deceased father.
- I feel sad that I don’t know how to support you when you act that way.
Your loved one may respond with irritability and anger, or double-down on their denial, but that doesn’t mean that you have to escalate the situation as well.
Try to take deep breaths and, if things get out of hand, it may be a good idea to say that you’d prefer to talk about this at another time.
Coming out of denial is a process — not an overnight switch.
Try to be available to help support or guide them without being forceful, says Gina Marie Guarino, a licensed mental health counselor in New York City.
“Pushing someone in denial to see the reality as you see it will be met with resistance,” she says. “It causes stress on you and the person in denial, and often leads to issues in the relationship, instead of a resolution to the situation.”
Even if you’re feeling frustrated, try not to accuse them of being in denial. Consider avoiding questions to try and get them to see your perspective.
Also, try to maintain your patience and not rush the process. It’s a good idea to let them set the pace. They will come out of denial when they’re ready. You can trust in that.
There may come a time when the denial is doing more harm than good.
If they seem open to it, you can encourage your loved one to start keeping track of certain behaviors in a journal or app, so they can look at the objective facts about a situation.
For example, someone can log how many drinks they’ve had in a week.
If the denial is interfering with work, home, school, or their overall quality of life, it may be time to discuss other options.
“If you notice that the denial is impacting or interfering with the person’s ability to function, you can empathically suggest that they speak with a professional,” says Tiffany Brown, a licensed clinical psychologist in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
“Be empathic with your words,” she adds. “Consider how difficult the situation may be for the person, and let that guide what you say.”
You may find it useful to work together to find a therapist using our search tools.
Sometimes, people need denial because facing a traumatic event is too painful to deal with. This may be the case if they don’t have the resources yet to be able to cope with it.
Denial was first described as a self-defense mechanism by psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, explains Mavish Sikander, a therapist in London.
“Defense mechanisms are strategies that help people to avoid distress and give them a sense that they are coping better,” she says. “Denial can give someone a sense of control, like water running from a tap. They might feel it’s more manageable when they can decide how much water is running and when.”
When someone is in denial, they may avoid and minimize their behaviors, refuse to accept help, or downplay consequences.
For example, someone who regularly misses work due to substance use but thinks their boss doesn’t notice or that they aren’t hurting themselves.
Denial is a spectrum. It can include avoidant behaviors, like changing the topic, or it could also involve self-awareness, like not seeing how something has affected you.
A loved one living with denial may tell you that they don’t have a problem, for example, even if you know they just went through a difficult event.
There may also be physical clues that someone is having a hard time accepting an event or its impact. For example, when a mother leaves her son’s room exactly the same for several years after his passing.
When something may seem plainly obvious to you, yet your loved one can’t see it, you may feel confused or scared.
Try to remember that your loved one is doing the best they can with the tools they’ve been given. Denial is serving some kind of function, at least for now, and they’ll come out of it when they’re ready.
Until then, try to be patient, speak with them using compassion, and take good care of your own mental health. When the time is right, they may come out of denial. In the meantime, your support may help them cope.