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Dealing with Denial

Chapter 3: Dealing with Denial

Tools for Handling Loss

By: James J. Messina, Ph.D.


What is denial?

Denial is:

  • Being unwilling to face problems on either a conscious or subconscious level.
  • Acting as if there are no problems to face.
  • A defensive response; protection from pain, hurt, or suffering.
  • A mask to hide feelings or emotions behind.
  • A way to avoid conflict, disagreements, or disapproval from others.
  • A way to avoid facing the negative consequences of reality.
  • A way of retaining our sanity when experiencing unbearable pain.
  • A way to repress the truth of our loss, a way to continue to function in a "normally."
  • A pattern of life for individuals who are compulsively driven to "look good."
  • A way to avoid the risk of change as a result of problems or loss.
How does denial look to others?
Persons in denial:
  • Appear to be irrational to those who know the problems and losses  they have suffered.
  • Appear to be calm and relaxed to those who do not know the problems and losses they have suffered.
  • Are a cause of frustration to those who want them to confront the truth of the problem or loss honestly.
  • Appear to be unemotional, apathetic, or indifferent in the face of loss.
  • Are considered pathetic and pitiable by those who have tried to confront them with the denial and have failed.
  • Appear to be caught up in magical thinking about the loss involved.
  • Appear to be excessively involved in fantasy thinking about the loss or problem.
  • Appear to be childlike, very dependent on others to nurture them and reassure them that everything will be all right.
  • Appear to be running away from the truth concerning their problems or loss.
  • Appear to be avoiding or rejecting those who are intent on confronting them with their problems.

What are the negative consequences of unresolved denial-

Unresolved denial can result in:

  • Delusional thinking, leading to a feeling that everything is OK, even when it is not.
  • Greater conflict between the deniers and the nondeniers.
  • Fantasy or magical thinking, allowing distorted thinking to become a habit.
  • Poor problem-solving and decision-making abilities for the denier.
  • The denier totally avoiding or withdrawing from everyone who knows of the loss or problem.
  • The denier becoming a social recluse.
  • Others avoiding the denier to avoid upsetting him with their concern, questions, or reassurance.
  • Frustration for those who want to help the denier.
  • A maladaptive pattern of coping with the loss or problem for the denier.
  • Everyone involved in the life of the denier joining the denial; the problem is not confronted honestly by those who can do something about it.
  • Resentment by the denier of those who are confronting him about the problems or loss.
  • Prolonging the time before the denier must confront the pain, hurt, and suffering involved in the loss or problem.
  • The denier projecting the problem or the results of the loss onto others.
  • The denier's use of rationalization to explain away the problem or loss.
  • Exacerbation of the very problems being denied.

How can we confront denial in ourselves?

We can confront denial by:

  • Asking ourselves honestly why we are in denial.
  • Asking ourselves what are the benefits to be gained by our denial.
  • Asking ourselves what is too painful to face.
  • Recognizing when we are caught up in magical or fantasy thinking about our problem or loss.
  • Recognizing the negative consequences that result from our denial behavior.
  • Not allowing ourselves to fall back into a safe emotional zone, but to keep our emotional response open and honest.
  • Recognizing when we are hiding behind a “nice" mask when discussing our loss or problems.
  • Allowing ourselves to express negative or embarrassing emotions as we confront our problems (e.g., crying, feeling lost, feeling confused, or feeling scared).
  • Allowing ourselves to admit to being out of control.
  • Trusting others to help us with our problem.
  • Admitting our vulnerability and our need for assistance.
  • Risking the loss of acceptance or approval by those who may be unable to handle our open, honest admission of our problem.
  • Recognizing the negative behavior scripts that impede our ability to deal openly with problems.
  • Recognizing that it is human to have problems and to experience loss; it is not a sign of our lack of value or worth.
  • Refuting the irrational beliefs that block our acceptance of the loss or problems.
  • Asking others to not allow us to deny or avoid the truth about our loss or problems.
  • Recognizing that denial is a natural stage in the loss/grief response.
  • Maintaining our sense of perspective, allowing ourselves to go through the problems as a growth experience.
  • Believing that out of failure comes success; accepting the failure as a chance for personal growth.
  • Accepting the help of others in the aftermath of our loss.
How can we cope with denial in others?
In coping with denial in others we need to:
  • Have a great deal of patience in order to allow them the time it takes to finally confront their loss or problems.
  • Be accepting of the denial as a psychological defense that is a vehicle for them to retain their sanity.
  • Be careful in confronting them, so that they don't run away or withdraw from reality even more.
  • Be ready for their resistance in dealing with the truth about their loss and problems.
  • Freely offer them our support and understanding.
  • Accept them as they are, waiting to deal with the loss or problem until they are ready.
  • Be ready with a rational perspective to help them refute their current irrational beliefs.
  • Resist solving their problems for them; resist the desire to continue sheltering or protecting them from their loss or problems.
  • Continue to let them know that there is support for them in dealing with the loss or problems. Let them face the existence of the loss or problem gently but continuously.
  • Provide them with subtle means to face the problem by giving them magazine or newspaper articles, pamphlets, or books on the subject; suggesting TV, and radio programs on the subject, or proposing professional help.
  • Recognize that if they are locked into a chronic state of denial, which is debilitating to their mental health, that a denial intervention may be necessary.

A denial intervention model:If a person close to you is using a chronic behavior pattern of denial injurious to his mental health, then the following intervention model may be useful in helping him break through this debilitating denial. 


Step 1 Prepare a written script of incidents characteristic of the target person's denial pattern of behavior. For each incident list the following:

  • The incidents where denial was used.
  • When it occurred.
  • What loss or problem was involved.
  • What the negative consequences of the denial were.
  • What could have happened if denial had not been used to resolve the problem or loss.
  • Why and how this incident of denial has affected you personally.


Step 2 Seek out other people who are closely related to the target person. Ask these people to prepare a written script, as in Step 1, for incidents of denial with which they know the target person has been involved. 


Step 3 Seek out the assistance of a counselor or mental health professional, if you believe the aftermath of a denial intervention with the target person may result in that person needing to get ongoing help. Invite this profes­sional person to the intervention rehearsal (Step 4). 


Step 4 Meet with everyone who has written a script of denial incidents. Rehearse how they will be presented to the target person. Choose a moderator for the intervention. 


Step 5 Set up a date, time, and place for the denial intervention session. Make sure that all of the variables of location, timing, and schedule are conducive to helping the target person relax and listen to what is being shared. (Have the session at a neutral site; not at a psychiatric hospital or chemical dependency treatment center). 


Step 6 Invite the target person to meet at the scheduled date, time, and place of the planned intervention. Do not reveal the agenda of the meeting or the participants. This is important as he may resist coming to such a meeting if he suspects he will be confronted with his denial. 


Step 7 Bring the target person to the meeting, and introduce the intent of the meeting to him. It is to share the love and concern of his family and friends who are in attendance. The family and friends are there because they are concerned about the target person's health and happiness and about how the denial pattern is affecting their relationship. 


Step 8 A moderator (selected by the group in Step 4) then introduces each intervenor, one at a time. The intervenors use the written scripts to explain all of the denial incidents. Each speaker continuously reassures the target person that he is loved. They share their concern about his welfare if he continues to use the denial pattern. 


Step 9 Once all of the intervenors have presented their scripts, the target person is faced with verbal and written evidence of the denial pattern. The moderator then shares with the target person an outline of steps to be taken to assist the person in overcoming the denial pattern. (These steps are decided by all of the intervenors at the meeting in Step 4.) 


Step 10 The target person may then be introduced to the counselor or mental health professional, if present, who shares a clinical perspective on the denial pattern and can explain what treatment is available. 


Step 11 The intervenors then let the target person react to all that has been presented. The group “problem solves'' with the target person about the next steps in breaking the denial pattern. 


The eleven steps in the denial intervention are repeated as often as needed to keep the target person from reverting to the old pattern of denial.