We are used to looking around us and seeing how unrealistic others can be, how they do things that we so clearly see are not in their best interest. Yet they just don't see this. And sometimes, perhaps with a little help from a friend or from a relentless critic (or that rare person who's both), we see how unrealistic we can be. When we see this, and when we understand how devastating the consequences of being unrealistic can be for ourselves, people we care about, and people who depend upon us, we are then faced with a choice. We can acknowledge how unrealistic we are and work on changing, or we can deny how unrealistic we are and proceed as if everything is "just fine."When I use the word "deny" here, I'm using it in its psychological sense, which is different from the way we usually use the word. Usually denial means that you say something is not true, knowing full well whether it is or not. Someone says you butted ahead in line and you say, "No, that's not true, I didn't butt in line." When you deny butting in line, you may be telling the truth or you may be lying, but you know what is true.
When the word "denial" is used by psychologists to describe one of the ways our mind works, it has a different meaning. The person has the information necessary to come to a correct conclusion but is not able to process the information in a way that leads to a reality-based emotional and behavioral response.
For example, consider someone who is an alcoholic and has a lot of information about how the dysfunction this causes is messing up their life and the lives of those around them. If they are using denial in the sense I'm talking about, they do not process this information emotionally and behaviorally. So when they say they don't have a problem they're not lying in the usual sense - they really believe this is true because they are not processing the information that is right in front of them.
Denial is not always bad. Sometimes something horrible happens that we just are not ready to deal with. We may be assaulted, told that we have a terminal illness, told that a loved one has died. In the face of such overwhelming information, denial provides us with a period of time during which we do not have to confront the reality of what is happening. This can buy us time, allowing us to gather the strength we need to deal with whatever's confronting us. But if at some point we do not pass through denial and confront the problem, this will impede our ability to adaptively deal with the reality of the situation in ways that benefit us.
So the good news is that denial protects us from distress. If the problem isn't processed emotionally then it's drained of its power. It's as if a magic genie touched it with a wand and it disappeared. But, of course, there's also bad news. There's a price paid for this psychological relief. By interfering with our ability to deal with reality, denial deprives our behavior of the energy and directedness that we need in order to cope with problems.
For example, suppose someone experiences a moderately severe pain in their abdomen that comes and goes, lasting for a few minutes and then going away and returning again. The person might use denial and say this is "nothing." That will relieve anxiety and make them feel reasonably comfortable. But it will also prevent them from seeking the medical attention that they may desperately need.
This is a good example, because denial of symptoms can allow treatable medical problems to progress to a point where they may cause irreversible negative consequences.
Of course the same pertains to psychological problems. The person with a substance abuse problem who uses denial may protect himself or herself from anxiety and guilt, but they will also be unmotivated to deal with their difficulty differently and in a way that will benefit those around them. Like the genie in the fairy tale who grants wishes, only to undo the wisher, denial takes away the pain and anxiety that a problem would usually generate, only to deprive the person of the motivation and resources to organize a realistic response to the problem.
Denial is seen not only on the level of the individual person. It is also seen in large groups of people - in whole societies and the governments that they create.
For example, there is now ample evidence that global warming is already causing serious damage to our planet and that, if it continues, it could cause catastrophic negative consequences. How do we as a society respond to this? Judged by the world's lack of action, the answer can only be: with denial. The data is there, but our emotional and behavioral responses are missing.
The same goes for our knowledge that the planet is running out of oil - that the planet has, at most, enough fossil fuel to fulfill our energy needs for another century of so. What is our response? According to some polls a majority of Americans support offshore oil drilling, which, aside from its already proven environmental risks, will increase the world oil supply by about 1 percent, at best (and only after many years). That won't solve the problem of running out of fossil fuels in 100 years or so. It won't even lower oil prices significantly, although it will result in about a 7 percent increase in oil production by U.S. oil companies - with commensurate increases in their already gigantic profits.
We're putting the planet at risk by burning fossil fuels and we're running out of these fuels and what is our response? Let's put the planet at some more risk in order to increase world oil production by 1 percent. It's hard to think of a clearer instance of denial, or one with greater potentially devastating consequences. It makes us wish for ourselves as a society what we would wish for ourselves as individuals - and for those we love - that we might have the courage to overcome denial and risk looking our problems in the eye so that we can begin to forge reality-based solutions to them.
G. Dennis Rains, Ph.D. is Professor of Psychology at Kutztown University and maintains a private practice in counseling and psychotherapy in Kutztown.