We’re all in denial. We’d barely get through the day if we worried that we or people we love could die today. Life is unpredictable, and denial helps us cope and focus on what we must in order to survive. On the other hand, denial harms us when it causes us to ignore problems for which there are solutions or deny feelings and needs that if dealt with would enhance our lives.
When it comes to codependency, denial has been called the hallmark of addiction. It’s true not only for drug (including alcohol) addicts, but also for their partners and family members. This axiom also applies to abuse and other types of addiction. We may use denial in varying degrees:
First degree: Denial that the problem, symptom, feeling or need exists.
Second degree: Minimization or rationalization.
Third degree: Admitting it, but denying the consequences.
Fourth degree: Unwilling to seek help for it.
Thus, denial doesn’t always mean we don’t see there’s a problem. We might rationalize, excuse, or minimize its significance or effect upon us.
Other types of denial are forgetting, outright lying or contradicting the facts due to self-deception. Deeper still, we may repress things that are too painful to remember or think about.
Denial is a helpful defense. There are many reasons we use denial, including avoidance of physical or emotional pain, fear, shame or conflict. It’s the first defense that we learn as a child. I thought it cute when my 4-year-old son vehemently denied having eaten any chocolate ice cream, while the evidence was smeared all over his mouth. He had lied out of self-preservation and the fear of being punished. Denial is adaptive when it helps us cope with difficult emotions, such as in the initial stages of grief following the loss of a loved one, particularly if the separation or death is sudden. Denial allows our body-mind to adjust to the shock more gradually.
It’s not adaptive when we deny warning signs of a treatable illness or problem out of fear. Many women delay getting mammograms or biopsies out of fear, even though early intervention leads to greater success in treating cancer. Applying the various degrees, above, we might deny that we have a lump; next rationalize that it’s probably a cyst; third, admit that it could be or actually is cancer, but deny that it could lead to death; or admit all of the above and still be unwilling to get treatment.
Inner conflict is another major reason for denial. Children often repress memories of abuse not only due to their pain, but because they’re dependent on their parents, love them, and are powerless to leave home. Young children idealize their parents. It’s easier to forget, rationalize, or make excuses than accept the unthinkable reality that my mother or father (their entire world) is cruel or crazy. Instead, they blame themselves.
As adults, we deny the truth when it might mean we’d have to take action we don’t want to. We might not look at how much debt we’ve accumulated because that would require us to lower our spending or standard of living, creating inner conflict.