The Obstructive Power of Denial

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We’re great self deceivers. When we deceive ourselves so earnestly and so often that we begin to believe our own lies, this really gets in the way of our motivation to change.

I pointed out in “Understanding Denial as a Defense Mechanism” that denial comes in two very different varieties — so different, in fact, it’s unfortunate we so often use the same term to describe such starkly disparate realities. One kind of denial is an unconscious defense mechanism. It’s our mind’s way of protecting us against unbearable emotional pain. The other kind of denial is a deliberate and therefore conscious tactical maneuver to evade responsibility and manipulate others. (I explain this and other manipulation tactics in In Sheep’s Clothing.) Both kinds of denial, however, can really hamper a person’s ability to truly learn and profit from past mistakes. As I assert in Character Disturbance, when it comes to our efforts to forge a better character, there is perhaps no mental mechanism — whether consciously or unconsciously employed — with quite the obstructive power of denial.

In the various 12-step programs, the first step always involves correctly identifying and accepting (“admitting”) the true nature of the problem needing attention (along with acknowledging personal powerlessness over it). Before you can even begin to work on an issue, you have both to know and to admit what it is. You also have to admit you haven’t been dealing with it very well. Denial is what generally stands in the way of taking that all important first step. Sometimes that’s because the truth is just too hard to bear and you’re not emotionally ready to come to terms with it. Other times, it’s because you’re simply getting too much out of whatever you’ve been doing or have other reasons for not wanting to do things differently. On one level, you might know you probably need to change your ways, but on another level, you might be too stubborn or prideful to admit you’ve been going down the wrong path or are simply averse to the notion of heeding someone else’s direction. We’re great self deceivers. Sometimes it’s just as hard to admit something to ourselves as it is to own up to our wrongdoings to others. Sometimes we can deceive ourselves so earnestly and so often that we even begin to believe our own lies, and this really gets in the way of us developing the motivation to change things. For more on this, see:

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Many years ago a woman came to see me under pressure from her son, who thought she might have become addicted to prescription medication her doctor gave her to sleep. (As always, in this vignette, any potentially identifying information has been altered to preserve anonymity.) The woman, whom I’ll call “Ellen,” was a nurse who worked primarily in the intensive care unit of a local hospital. Recently, there had been an “incident” at the hospital involving a patient who almost died while under her care, and she was given a cautionary “write up” by her supervisor. Ellen adamantly denied doing anything wrong. She also denied she had any kind of drug problem and denied being impaired in any way during the performance of her duties. In fact, she made it clear from the beginning she wasn’t coming to see me because she knew she had a problem. Rather, she came to appease her son and was sure that after hearing her story I’d give her a clean bill of health.

While it’s not the usual case, Ellen was one of those individuals whose ability to recognize and to get on top of a problem was hampered by both kinds of denial. Her denial about the “incident” that was reported to her supervisor was purely tactical. Ellen knew she had made a mistake and also knew how serious it was. But she wasn’t prepared to admit it. In fact, she was still in the process of contesting the findings of her supervisor through her hospital’s administrative review process and most likely felt that any admission on her part might jeopardize her chances of erasing the one and only dark spot on her record. She’d worked very hard to earn her position on the unit (and commensurate salary), so she wasn’t about to give it up without a fight.

Ellen also didn’t want to admit that she had become too “dependent” on her sleep aids and that the “incidents” (both reported and unreported) that had been occurring in her life because of her dependency were setting her up for almost certain disaster. Now, Ellen was no stranger to failure. All her life she’d tried to do the right thing and meet the expectations of her high achieving family. But she married a man who turned out to be a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” and who exploited her, cheated on her, then ran out on her, leaving her and their three children destitute, and also leaving her feeling both ashamed and defeated. It was a long, hard, road for her to pick up the emotional pieces, go back to school, earn her nursing degree, and secure a position that finally gave her the ability to fend adequately for herself and her family. She was in a better place now and she no longer felt like a failure or disappointment to her family. She just knew she didn’t really “need” those pills, because she’d gone without them several times. But she had to be sure she got a good night’s rest so she could be at her best on the job. It was simply too much to bear to think that things were all falling apart again, and this time with no one to blame but herself, and that one of the things she was doing to try and make it all work was actually making things go horribly wrong. While she had no conscious awareness of why she couldn’t face the reality of her circumstances — the shame alone would have devastated her emotionally — Ellen’s denial would nearly be her doing in.

Before Ellen finally faced the truth and began working through her issues, there would have to be another “incident” at the hospital. This time it would not only cost her her higher paying position on the ICU but also almost cost her her job. Such is the “obstructive power” of denial. Denial often keeps you from making the course corrections that can improve your circumstances and your character. And because of that, many times, things have to get a lot worse in a denying person’s life before they have a chance of getting better. Fortunately, the hospital’s employee assistance program not only recognized Ellen’s problem for what it was but also underwrote the treatment she needed. In the process, Ellen came to some important realizations not only about herself but also about the nature of denial and the hindrance it can pose to personal growth. Ellen always lived in fear of failure. But she eventually came to a greater peace about “owning” and accepting her weaknesses and shortcomings. Whereas once denial kept her from growing and almost set her back, her increased acceptance — both of herself and her mistakes — enabled her to really move forward. As Ellen learned so well from her ordeal, moving forward always begins with that critical first step.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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