Denial Is Just Another Defense Mechanism

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Almost everyone nowadays knows what it means to say an alcoholic is “in denial.” This is the alcoholic who tells himself and the world “I can quit any time I want to.” He doesn’t quit, though, and doesn’t recognize the impact of his drinking on himself or on those who care about him. Denial operates in other circumstances as well; after the death of a loved one, we often find ourselves thinking temporarily as if that person is still a part of our lives.

“Defenses operate to protect us from uncomfortable or unacceptable self-awareness.”

Almost everyone nowadays knows what it means to say an alcoholic is “in denial.” This is the alcoholic who tells himself and the world “I can quit any time I want to.” He doesn’t quit, though, and doesn’t recognize the impact of his drinking on himself or on those who care about him. Denial operates in other circumstances as well; after the death of a loved one, we often find ourselves thinking temporarily as if that person is still a part of our lives. Denial is a complex process whereby we admit conscious knowledge of events but somehow fail to feel their emotional impact or see their logical consequences.

It might surprise some AA members, who have conquered their own denial but usually have not been helped by traditional psychotherapy, to realize that the concept of denial comes from Freud himself. Whatever we may think of Freudian psychoanalysis in the light of current understanding of mind-body functioning, denial and the other defense mechanisms are concepts articulated by the Freudian school that have proven to be so useful and intuitive that they are unlikely ever to be discarded.

To review other defense mechanisms: all of us know a rationalization when we see one, especially when the other guy does it. Intellectualization is denial that’s been to college – “I understand why I drink but I choose to continue.” Everyone who has ever kicked the dog or yelled at the kids when he’s really angry at the boss is guilty of displacement. Introjection and incorporation are ways we have of minimizing the impact of death or separation, and most of us have had the experience of suddenly realizing we are acting “just like” the person we cared about who is gone. Reaction formation and undoing are ways of doing the opposite of the wished-for behavior, which sometimes appear superstitious. Most of us know someone who hates our guts, but always acts like our best friend. That is reaction formation. Projection is a powerful and often destructive tool whereby we take unacceptable parts of ourselves and attribute them to others. Projection is often the fuel for divorce: “It’s not my fault, it’s your fault, that I’m unhappy, unsuccessful… ( you fill in the blank).” Splitting is a complex defense mechanism in which others are seen as either all good (and thus caring, rescuing sources of strength) or all bad (and thus to blame for all one’s own misery). To be in a close relationship with a splitter is extremely confusing (but rarely dull), because the roles frequently reverse, often several times a day, so one is never quite sure where one stands. Splitters can wreak havoc in groups because they tend to get others to play out their assigned roles; no one is permitted to be merely human, a combination of good and bad.

These defenses are all sensible observations of human behavior patterns; where Freudian theory gets in trouble nowadays, however, is when one asks what is being defended against. Freud developed a psychology based on instinctual drives as the foundation for all human behavior. This does not feel acceptable to current theorists; it leaves out too much of human behavior that seems motivated by desires for self-fulfillment, intimacy, or mastery over the environment. Because the defenses were explained in terms of drives, there is a temptation to minimize their importance or abandon the concepts altogether.

But this would clearly be throwing the baby out with the bathwater. The concept of defense explains a great deal of what we see every day in character and personality, in interpersonal relations, in why people get into self-defeating behavior patterns that lead to the therapist’s office. For instance, some people’s whole lives seem determined by denial, others by projection, others by reaction formation. Let us say that the defenses operate to protect us from uncomfortable or unacceptable self-awareness, and leave it at that until a new comprehensive theory of human behavior is developed.

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