Denial – Good or Bad?

by Robert H. Phillips, Ph.D.

“You’re in denial!” Somehow, when you hear those words, it sounds like a bad thing, doesn’t it? But denial can be both good and bad. Let’s discuss this further.

What Is Denial?

Denial is typically seen as a refusal to accept something that a person does not believe (or does not want to believe) to be true. It is a coping mechanism that is used in many different situations in which we are shocked, upset, angry, stressed, or feel overwhelmed.

In the five stages of grief, as initially explained by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, denial is considered to be the first step of the grieving process (followed by anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance). The grieving person thinks, “That cannot be me,” or similar thoughts. Early in the grieving process, denial is an almost instinctive way of protecting oneself from the enormity of the present situation.

Denial can occur in many situations, not just in the grieving process. There may be occasions in which someone engages in denial to avoid thinking about an ongoing problem, choosing to be “ignorant in bliss.” There may be denial of an illness… not accepting what is happening to your body. There may be denial of any unpleasantness in a relationship. What about denial so as to not accept negative things about your children or any loved one, or even about yourself? The list can go on and on. If confronted, most people will deny that they are even in denial.

Is there such a thing as bad denial and good denial? Yes!

Denial can be either good or bad, depending on the circumstance, the “use,” and how long it lasts. Let’s discuss the difference.

Good denial is a coping mechanism, something that gives you time to adjust to and accept a difficult situation. But it is only good if it is temporary, and doesn’t interfere with you ultimately addressing and dealing with the problem.

For example, if you have a medical issue, you may temporarily deny it in order to get through the day. Does having a severe health issue mean that you have to think about it, and its ramifications, all the time? No. So blocking it, and trying to focus on other aspects of your life, might be seen as a type of good denial. But what if by blocking it, you also block the need for regular doctor visits or taking your prescribed medication? Then this would be bad denial.

Some people may be in denial about issues in close relationships. They may choose to overlook qualities in partners, friends or even children to focus on the positives, ‘hope’ for the best, or to maintain the relationship. This may be considered good denial. But if this keeps them from facing characteristics that are negative, having regrets that they “settled,” or trying to improve a given situation, is that truly desirable? The could be bad denial. They may also be in denial about their own negative characteristics which affect their relationships.

Some people might deny the existence of an inappropriate or self-sabotaging behavior (e.g., “I didn’t do that, I couldn’t have.”). This can interfere with personal growth and have an impact on normal functioning or relationships with others. That can be bad denial. But must they think about their “mistakes” all the time? If nothing can be done to correct an unfortunate action in the past, must it be an ongoing “black cloud,” one that continues to interfere with the individual’s well-being, or even leads to maladaptive behaviors? This might be seen as good denial.

In general, good denial is, in many cases, beneficial, and even essential, in helping a person make the transition to acceptance. It can be quite useful in giving the person the opportunity to digest what has happened, and help them prepare for life moving forward. If, however, it continues for too long, it may interfere with the implementation of other more effective, necessary coping strategies that can help them proactively. It could prevent them from getting help, and turn into negative, long-term consequences. This would then be bad denial.

The Bottom Line

All of these examples of denial can be addressed and improved. But, you will first need to come to the point where you realize you are in denial. Denial can be good if it’s protective, exists for an appropriate length of time, and gives the person a chance to understand, and eventually act on, whatever they’re denying. Denial is bad if it keeps the person from facing something that has to be faced. This may make the situation even worse. By better understanding how you’re dealing with things, and being realistic about how you’re viewing the reality of your situation, the sooner you’ll be able to move forward with your life in a more positive and accepting way.

How Can We Help?

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