People are always tossing psychological phrases into conversations, such as, “Yes, the poor thing is in denial.”  They are often correct, sometimes wrong.  Denial means that unwelcome facts are denied while the person still stays in touch with basic reality. I would say that the following statement qualifies as denial – “My husband, although he is has a drug addiction and can be abusive to the kids and me, never misses a day of work, thereby proving his general good health and love for family.”  Here’s another, very common one. “Sure I drink 8 cans of beer/ one bottle of wine/4martinis (your choice) every night but I feel great in the morning and my production at work is super.”

 These imaginary people are in touch with reality, except as it applies to one area that they are unable to accept without distortion. The one area can be any form of behavior. In the examples above, I used addiction, abuse, and bad judgment but people can deny the state of a relationship, spending habits, poor grades, work performance, or almost anything.  Many people continue to perpetuate their own myths in spite of confrontation from the outside. Family and friends try to help but their comments are repelled with retorts such as, “You don’t understand”; “it is under control”, “I’m not hurting anybody”, “it is normal and you are just a prude”; “it has no effect on my work or relationships” or, (people really do say) “I can stop whenever I want.”

 In other situations, denial is actually helped by cooperation from the world outside. Friends and family look the other way, avoid dwelling on the addictions or abuse, or even cooperate (like the first example) in the illusion. The friends and family are also in touch with reality – except for this major glitch – and go along for many reasons, including hope for change, fear of loss and harm, equally poor judgment, or helplessness.

I wish I had a good solution for confronting denial but I don’t. People seem to hear and learn when they are ready.  You may have a great deal of tolerance and wait for that time or you may get sick of the illusions and back away.

If you are an early career clinician, a professor who teaches interviewing skills, or a clinical supervisor, you will find my newest book, “What Do I Say? The Therapist’s Guide To Answering Client’s Questions” (with C. Waehler, published by John Wiley, 2011) a  practical, useful addition to your library. 

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