The Compass: Official Newspaper of the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay
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September 28, 2001 Issue
Counselor's Corner

'My sister tells me that I'm in denial; what does that mean?'

Denial is something we humans use to protect ourselves from threats

By Joann Liska

QUESTION: My sister and I recently argued about some family difficulties. She told me I was in denial. I hear that term often. What does it mean?

ANSWER: Denial was defined by the psychiatrist, Sigmund Freud. It is a defense mechanism humans developed to protect themselves from something threatening by blocking awareness of that threat. Thus, the person doesn't even know or is unwilling to admit that the threat exists. The person isn't being dishonest. Often victims of abuse, families with alcoholism, dysfunctional work places, and individuals with mental illness suffer from denial.

Some people develop denial to cope with a situation from which they can't escape or they perceive they can't change. An example would be a child who is repeatedly sexually abused by a relative. The child believes the perpetrator's threats that if she tells the truth, other family members will be harmed. To survive, she may block it out completely, believe she did something wrong to deserve this as a punishment, or believe it isn't so bad.

At the time, denial helps the victim get through the traumatic experience. However, as the child grows into an adult, the denial can cause additional problems in relationships. It can overshadow a person's ability to recognize truth, a set of circumstances, events or phenomenon that are happening. It can impair judgment and result in self-delusion which locks the individual into an increasingly destructive pattern of living.

Denial can take several forms

Denial show itself in one or more of the following ways:

• Simple denial is believing something is not so, when indeed it is and is obvious to others. In an alcoholic family, people often are in denial about their drinking and the problems it causes for themselves and others. There can be family denial too because individuals don't want to admit the loved one in their life is sick.

• Minimizing is when the person admits that there is a problem, but will not admit the seriousness of it, as I explained earlier in the sexual abuse victim example.

• Blaming, also called projection, means denying responsibility for certain behaviors and then blaming someone or something else. This occur frequently at work when employees do not accept responsibility for not meeting goals or expectations of employers, and then say employer's expectations are unreasonable.

• Rationalizing is offering alibis, excuses, justifications or other explanations for behavior. The behavior is not denied but an inaccurate explanation of its cause is given. 

• Intellectualizing is avoiding emotional awareness of a problem by dealing with it by generalizing, intellectual analyzing or theorizing. It blocks any admission of feelings and impact on one's emotions. The wife who was beaten by her husband may admit to the physical damages, but not to the emotional effect on her because she feels she has to be strong for the children.

• Diversion is a technique used to change the subject to avoid discussing a threatening situation.

• Finally, repression is where painful or threatening experiences and impulses are automatically excluded from consciousness. It can vary from complete amnesic episodes to impressions of vague feelings of uneasiness, unworthiness, anxiety and guilt.

Denial can become part of personality

Remember, denial is automatic and the affected person does not know they are engaging in acts of denial. It is progressive. The affected individual sets up such an elaborate system of denial that the denial becomes a part of their personality. When that happens, it is difficult to break that denial without counseling.

If you have experienced a traumatic situation or events, I hope you will address it through counseling. Until you look truthfully at it, the situation may worsen. Catholic Charities has well-trained therapists who can assist you. Please feel free to call one of our offices.

(Liska is a social worker with Catholic Charities - Marinette. Catholic Charities is supported by the annual Bishop's Appeal.)

Send questions to Counselor's Corner, c/o Catholic Charities, P.O. Box 23825, Green Bay WI 54305-3825. All questions will be answered in print or through the mail. Identities will remain confidential.

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