Thursday, February 11, 2016



Denial is one of the defence mechanisms postulated by Freud. Denial helps a person cope with a distressing reality and like all defence mechanisms postulated by Freud, it operates at the unconscious level.

Many people rely on this coping strategy, beyond the time it's beneficial; they stay in a state of denial far too long and end up with disastrous consequences. Here is a list of situations where people are in denial of reality and remain there for long periods of time. Some never ever come out of denial & deal with reality in a practical way. Denial makes them take counter-productive decisions which leads to failure. Failure makes some people lean even more heavily on denial....a vicious cycle.
 Some people, fortunately, are shaken out of denial after a while.

Denial is a frequently used defence. I have seen two types of denial. One is the classic Freudian defence mechanism, operating at the unconscious level, where the person who's in denial is unaware of being in denial. The other is where the person is aware of the truth or reality, yet denies it to ‘other people’ or even to self for a number of reasons.

Below are samples of denial I have come across in many people. Denial in certain situations occurs in millions of people who share a culture; This to me indicates that certain anxieties  are common in those cultures and so many people share the anxiety and all react in the same way i.e. denial. Worry about droughts in the arid regions of the world, worries about crime in certain cities of the world are a couple of anxieties shared by the people who live in those regions.

Problem 1)Hundreds of thousands of parents of high school and pre-university students in India, since the last 30 years at least, force their children to study courses such as medicine,  engineering, dental, etc. even if their children show no aptitude for these courses. The lack of ability to study for these courses is obvious even when they are in high school by their low scores in relevant subjects such as mathematics and science, yet the parents force them to take science & mathematics in grade 11 and 12 as they want their kids to study one of these courses. These parents and in some instances, the students themselves are in denial of the reality of their lack of ability to study these courses. They delude themselves by stating, ‘if he works hard, he will do well;’ “He is interested and if I send him to extra tutions and put him in a good college, he is bound to do well’.  These parents and students refuse to accept that they don’t have the capacity to study these courses and do a good job when they finish. Refuse to accept that if one’s basics in science & mathematics are shaky, then one cannot grasp, at the necessary speed to cope with the course. This denial has lead to India producing hundreds of thousands of ‘unemployable’ engineers and other tech-related people. It is the anticipatory anxiety related to unemployment and future of the children, the desire for a ‘job which is respectable and job which gives status’ which are the driving forces of parents and students choices.

Problem 2) Denial of abuse: wives beaten by their husbands, children by their parents, daughter-in-laws by their husbands or parents in laws is all too common in India and many other countries. The victims if abuse deny the abuse for many reasons. Sometimes, it is the defence mechanism of denial that is, the victim, truly believes that he or she is not being abused. There are women who have been beaten by their husbands but state, ‘He’s not a bad person, he hit me only because he’s angry. He cried and apologized later.’

Often the victims are aware they are being  abused and the denial is only to ‘other people’. They deny being abused when asked because they want to maintain the image of a ‘happy family’ in the eyes of their society or eyes of their relatives. Many don’t report the abuse due to fear of repercussions, lack of support by society or others, not being believed when they do report the abuse, being forced to continue to live with the abuser after reporting the abuse as there is no other alternative, etc.

Problem 3) India is a difficult country to live in for many reasons such as lack of safety for women and many vulnerable sections of society such as the lower castes, handicapped, the poor, etc. These are the things which make India unlivable for majority of the population: The lack of drinking water, lack of continual supply of electricity, lack of  toilets in villages and small towns, lack of  quality school education in villages, poor transport in rural areas, lack of affordable nutrition to all, lack of health facilities, lack of employment, lack of empowerment for several sections of society, the presence of corruption, the widening gap between the rich and poor, between the rural and urban, between the English speaking and non-English speaking, between the literate and the illiterate.  Yet, there is a country-wide denial of the evils in Indian society by many upper class privileged Indians! They argue that India is wonderful, India is great and when problems are pointed out, they argue that such things happen in all countries! They deny the magnitude of the problems and state that the ‘foreign’ press is biased! This denial reflects the complete absence of empathy among the privileged Indians  and also their schizophrenic lack of touch about Indian reality.

Problem 4) Many addicts are in denial of their addiction. Hoarders, smokers, alcoholics, gamblers, drug users are in denial. They say things like, I am not a hoarder. I use these things and so I have them. But they may have 3 cellphones in use or 5 different DVDs of the same show, same season, etc. I can manage without drinking. I drink but I am in control. I smoke only when I want; I am not dependent.  Denial of these problems is seen all over the world and has nothing to do with the society or culture.

Problem 5) As a therapist, I have seen many families and clients who are in denial of their psychological or psychiatric problem. The denial is not a 'bad' thing if it lasts for a few days or weeks or even months. Denial has many protective qualities and helps a person face terrible things, without breaking down. But denial is not protective but counter-productive if it continues for several months or years.
There are parents who deny that their child has autism or ADHD or DD or whatever. They refuse to get appropriate help and insist on having the child attend ‘regular’ school with ‘typical’ peers. The poor child with the diagnosis/problem, has difficulty fitting in with the 'regular' class or with the regular peers and can suffer. Sometimes parental denial of the child's diagnosis may persist, even when the child turns into an adult. The child with the problem, has lived, without getting any help for the problem and is now an adult and unable to function in society as he was denied help to treat the problem.

There are also adult clients who remain in a state of denial and refuse to accept their diagnosis such as OCD, depression, personality disorder, etc.

I can understand a schizophrenic denying his mental illness and being in denial for long period of time. Not in touch with reality is the nature of the illness. But to deal with denial when I am  counseling clients with non-psychotic illnesses for months or years is challenging to say the least! Valuable time is lost due to denial.  A client will accept  treatment or the next step, only after accepting that he has a problem. The longer the person denies that he has a problem, the less likely is he to accept treatment or take the next step.

Problem 6) People who refuse to see good in a person whom they dislike or refuse to see bad in the persons they like are two frequently occurring types of denial! This is also highly exasperating to all of us who have seen this! 
I have seen parents who  so blindly  love their ‘first-born child’, ‘last-born child’ or ‘an only child’ and fail to see the terrible behaviours the ‘beloved child’ repeatedly shows. These parents have excuses for these behaviours and some even go so far as to blame the victims of their child’s behaviour! I have seen a lady who loved her son so blindly that she  blames the person who loaned her son money to help him! She's in total denial  about her son's reckless borrowing. Parents blind love of their children, wives blind love of their husbands or vice versa is a universal  type of denial.  But I have a gut feeling that this is seen more in certain cultures or societies or sections of societies.  But unless a systematic study is done to proove it, it would not be fair to name the cultures where I believe this denial is more common.                                                                                                                     I have seen mothers who blamed their daughters-in-law for their son’s alcoholism or womanizing though the son was guilty of these behaviours, even before marrying or ever having met his wife! Gender bias against women as a cause of  denial is something I see more in some societies than all over the world in equal measure. 
I have seen teachers who make excuses for their favorite student or give higher marks for their favorite students and lesser marks for the same answer given by their less liked student.

Problem 7: Have you come across cases where a guy believes a girl is in love with him but the girl says no, she's not and yet, he interprets even her no as a yes? Everyone else around are sure the girl's not interested in him. Yet, anything the girl says or does, is interpreted by the guy as,'she loves me'? This is another delusional behaviour or a type of denial that I have come across. People refusing to accept the reality that they are not loved by the person from whom they seek love is something I have come across many times. A parent who refuses to believe that his child does not love him; a lover refusing to accept that her lover is breaking up for good as he no longer loves her, are some examples of denial. One scenario I have come across a few times (in India) is that of a guy who sees a random pretty girl on a bus or at a park or simply walking by. If she smiles at him or he even 'thinks' she smiled at him, he interprets it as the girl being in love with him. No amount of reasoning will shake this belief from this guy's mind! I wonder if this is something which happens only in the east where the mingling of men and women is restricted and these men who are deprived of women's company develop these delusional ideas/denial of reality. This scenario is depicted in many Indian movies too. I wonder if this behavior falls more in the realm of delusions or denial. I am putting it under denial as the person cannot accept the reality of being unloved by someone they love.

How to deal with denial is the next multimillion dollar question!

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