Denial may be the biggest way we lie to ourselves. While it can help, we often do more harm than good when we refuse to accept the truth and enable maladaptive behaviours and relationships. Here's how denial works, how it affects your choices, and what you can do to fix the problem.
What Is Denial?
Denial is a psychological defence mechanism that helps a person avoid a potentially distressing truth. It can also be looked at as a form of "avoidance", which is another psychological term that indicates a person is doing all they can to not deal with a given situation. However you choose to frame it, recognising its presence in your behaviour can do wonders for your ability to know when to look at a situation differently from the way that comes naturally to you.
Denial Can Be Healthy
Everyone engages in denial at one point or another. It's a normal way of protecting our egos that can get us through some tough situations. Without it, we would probably blindly accept the "noise" our bodies make when we're tired and don't want to finish a workout instead of ignoring the fact that fatigue is eating away at our stamina.
Denial Can Be Harmful
When denying reality enables us to continue engaging in an unhealthy behaviour or when it facilitates the continuation of a harmful situation, then it's safe to say that it is harmful. Unfortunately, most people won't recognise the harmful effects of denial until they are knee-deep in a bad situation. If the same bad outcomes keep happening to us and we can't seem to figure out why, there's a good chance that we are denying reality in some way.
How to recognise and Address Denial
Pay Attention to Recurring Negative Themes
Recurring negative themes, such as a series of harmful relationships or negative side effects related to an addictive behaviour, are good red flags for denial. Chances are that we are either creating an environment that is conducive to the negative outcome we don't want or fooling ourselves into thinking that we have control over a situation that we really are helpless to affect. If you see a recurring theme, know that you're probably denying a truth.
Don't Blame Groups of People
If you find yourself saying things like "all [insert adjective here] people are no good", then you're probably denying your role in a situation. It's highly unlikely that everyone else in the world is colluding against you so you're probably doing something to contribute to the negative outcome you're whining about. Take note whenever you use superlatives ('always', 'never', 'every', 'nobody') to describe what you think is the cause of your dilemma because it's probably those occasions that you need to take inventory of YOUR behaviours... after all, the one common thread in all of your dilemmas is YOU.
Consult Different Thinkers
Keep someone who thinks very differently from you available. People are likely to surround themselves with like-minded people so if you're denying something, your like-minded friends may just reinforce your denial because they may see things the same way you do. Having someone who challenges your opinions and assumptions can do wonders for learning what questions you have to ask yourself about a given situation because they are probably going to question why you feel the way you do. In other words, if you're a liberal-leaning person then it may be a good idea to keep your conservative uncle on speed dial.
Remember that denial is normal and we all engage in it. If we keep finding ourselves in the same negative situation and clueless as to why, then we are probably in denial about something. Look for the red flags and question your assumptions and hopefully you'll break a negative cycle.