A few days ago, a friend lost her cell phone. She kept looking for her phone (a good thing to do for some time) for like an eternity. After a point, I felt exhausted seeing the number of times she checked her bag to find her phone. Around this time, her father entered the room and asked her for her phone because he wanted someone’s number; she said she would text him in a bit.
Her reply sounded like a lie to me. I found it weird but didn’t say anything. After an hour or so, the fact that her phone was lost sunk in. She cribbed a bit, went to her father, and told him that she had lost her phone and thus couldn’t help him with the number.
This was when it struck me that she was not lying but was in denial!
What is the psychological defense mechanism of Denial?
Denial is a defense mechanism! It is an unconscious refusal to admit or to recognize something that has occurred or is currently occurring.
Then, what is lying?
Many people get confused between lying and denial. However, there is a difference.
Lying is more often a deliberate tactic of impression management, manipulation, and responsibility avoidance. E.g. after a boy was caught shoplifting, he denied it completely to save himself from punishment! Here denying the deed includes purposeful lying. Lying can be conscious and, at times, even unconscious for habitual liars, i.e. they may lie automatically without even thinking.
Denial happens unconsciously! Its purpose is to save the person from unbearable feelings. In many cases, there might be overwhelming evidence that something is lost, yet the person will continue to deny the loss not because he is lying but because he doesn’t even believe that the loss has happened.
Purpose of the psychological defense mechanism of Denial
A person is in denial to unconsciously avoid the extremely uncomfortable feeling that he would have to face. For example, after being diagnosed with a terminal illness, the person may completely deny the reports and refuse to go through treatment for the same.
Mental healthcare experts place denial at the first stage of coping! Denial is also the first stage out of the five stages of loss conceptualized by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in her book on death and dying.
Therefore, when an unpleasant event occurs, the first impulse of disbelief begins the coping process. For example, the news that an aeroplane in which your friend has crashed may put you in denial. You may feel this hasn’t happened and check and re-check with others. Or let us say, in my friends’ case, the disbelief that her phone was lost initially saved her from guilt and anger!
Denial has sub-types
- Simple Denial: In many cases, individuals may deny reality completely. For example, a wife may completely deny the fact that her husband passed away.
- Minimization: Many times, people reduce the intensity by admitting to the fact but denying its seriousness. E.g. A chain smoker may admit that she is addicted to smoking but argues that nothing will happen to her. Therefore, she denies the effects of smoking. Thus, this minimizing becomes a mixture of denial as well as rationalization.
- Projection: When in Denial, individuals may accept the fact and even its intensity but may end up blaming someone or something instead of owning up to it. E.g., A husband, after beating his wife, may say, “She provoked me to beat her up” –here, he denies responsibility for his actions.
Denial is an unconscious tool, very powerful in nature. It is temporarily adequate but not always particularly healthy to mitigate emotional pain.