Is denial always bad?

I see this as fodder for a “great debate”, but it’s not the type of thing that posters in Great Debates seem to be looking for — i.e. it’s not calculated to provoke political outrage. So I guess it goes here.

Our culture has a strong bias against untruth. By that I mean that we tend to regard false belief, or lack of awareness, as an inherently degraded condition, irrespective of any particular harm it may cause. People argue violently about what is true, but they do not disagree that everyone should know the truth. This very board, with its motto of “Fighting Ignorance”, affirms this bedrock cultural value.

Consequently, popular psychology deems denial (the tendency to avoid perceiving uncomfortable realities) to be an evil. Denial must be punctured, shattered, or dissolved, we believe. Hard truths must be confronted and acknowledged. Comforting fictions must be stripped away, to save us from the darkness of ignorance.

This attitude ignores the fact that denial is a coping strategy, and often a very effective one. People avoid harsh truths because to do so makes them feel better; challenging their denial tends to make people feel worse. Feeling worse is suffering, and to cause suffering is to do harm. In other words, when the truth hurts, confronting people with the truth hurts people.

Now, there may be benefits to knowing certain truths, and the good of those benefits may outweigh the trauma of disillusionment, but I do not see why we should assume that this is always the case. Shouldn’t we be hesitant to combat denial, lest we wind up, in some cases, with all pain and no payoff?

I agree. Denial is the dirty little secret that everybody does, but most deny they do it. For example, isn’t “Look on the bright side” just another way of saying “Deny the dark side”?

I don’t think denial exists.

I dunno… It seems to me that it leads to the risk of a “fool’s paradise.” One sits in comfort, believing that (for example) “My wife would never be unfaithful to me,” while she’s slipping out the back door to an assignation.

Realism seems to be, nearly always, the better course. Face the truth. Denial smacks of “having your own facts.” Where do you draw the boundaries? How far down the path of illusion and fantasy can you safely go?

Now, there are worse ways of coping. Alcohol comes to mind. If someone could only deal with a terrible situation by avoiding it, I guess I’d rather they engage in denial than in booze. But, ultimately, it’s a substitute, and a cop-out.

It’s like the guy falling off a thirty-story building. As he’s passing the second floor, he says, “Well, I’m actually doing pretty well, so far.” Denial of reality often comes with a very unpleasant surprise at the end.

(Not that I can think of anything useful the guy can do after falling off a tall building. Might as well enjoy the scenery, I guess.)

From a nursing perspective, denial in the short term aftermath of a tragedy is normal, expected and “adaptive”. It’s when it goes on so long that it begins to impede a person’s progress emotionally moving forward that it becomes a problem.

Comedian Mike Birbiglia has a bit about delusion being a necessary ingredient for any successful career in comedy…something about how you have to be able to bomb in front of an indifferent or abusive audience and think “that went well!” to be able to keep trying and trying.

I think this ability to ignore discouraging information is probably a important strategy for many successful people.

Quite the opposite of this, which is why the rest of your argument is correct. People always prefer the comforting lie to the uncomfortable truth, and the denial results.

My life would be completely different without denial. I’m blind, with limited useful vision, and in a very few years, I won’t even have that. But I am in denial about that. Last year I went, alone and independently, to Kyrgyzstan, next week I’m going to Sri Lanka . By myself with no advance arrangements except plane reservations. I just get off the plane and see what happens. I’m 77, I have no medical insurance to cover anything while abroad, I’m in denial of being fragile and handicapped. What is the alternative?

But, the fact is, I CAN do it. Why would I stay home, in denial of that?

Right? The fact is, we’re all going to die…eventually. And getting too caught up in the reality of that can be paralyzing. Sometimes, denial is the only way to keep living.

My husband went through some very serious health crises a few years ago. Three major abdominal surgeries, a heart attack we know about and probably another we didn’t, multiple hospitalizations for pneumonia and intestinal blockages, new diagnoses of diabetes and emphysema. I mean, bad stuff. Oh, and he’s 22 years older than me, and all of this began happening in the first two months of our relationship.

I didn’t do denial well. I was terrified. He’d go nap, and I’d check in on him every five minutes like he was a newborn. I spent every single waking minute certain that this cough would be the last. I was overwhelmed with images of paramedics taking his dead body through our living room and leaving me all alone. I couldn’t concentrate on school (I’d started nursing school the day after his first surgery!), I was neglecting my kids (they watched out for each other, and they’re fine, but I still feel guilty about that), I just couldn’t function. I knew, cognitively, that he was going to die, and probably before me, and there was no way for me to deny it. I further knew that I had known that everyone dies before all this, but I was able to deny it, to push it away and not worry about it. I couldn’t remember how to do that. My denial was broken, and it nearly broke me.

Finally one of my teachers noticed what was going on, and he said, “You know PTSD, right? Well, we nurses have something else, called “anticipatory grieving”. When it’s bad, it’s like Pre-Traumatic Stress Disorder. And girl…you got it bad. You’ve got to figure this out. Because you’re right. He’s going to die. But probably not today. But maybe today, I won’t lie! But you can’t live your life scared that today is the day, or you might as well just smother him with a pillow and be done with it.”

Time’s gone on, and somehow, I’ve been able to re-engage the healthy kind of denial. I still know he’s going to die, but probably not today. Still, I know that someday will be today. But it no longer consumes my every waking thought. I wish I could say there was something I did to snap out of reality and back into healthy denial, but I think mostly it was time and his continuing refusal to die daily. :stuck_out_tongue:

I’d say it depends on what the denial is about, and how deep the denial is. The Mike Birbiglia example is a good one, about being in denial about how good a comedian you are and how well the show went being a survival mechanism. But if a comedian was completely delusional about how things went, he’d never get better, and stop getting jobs, and have no idea why he’s not making enough money when he thinks the crowd always loves him.

And it also depends on how harmful the denial can be. If I’m in denial about how bad my singing is, then it only harms the people who go to karaoke with me. But if I’m in denial about how bad my drinking is, the consequences could be much worse.

The problem with denial is that if you refuse to accept that you have a problem, you’ll never learn to overcome the problem. Alcoholics who believe they’re just having an occasional drink and can quit at any time end up driving drunk and losing jobs and family because they won’t face the fact that drinking throughout the day is a bad thing. I dated someone who I’m sure now has Borderline Personailty Disorder, and it’s really sad that she is going to keep repeating the pattern of short, intense relationships that have an early “I love you”, big change in world view, fairly quick move-in, then an explosive breakup less than 2 years from the move-in due to her anger and actions because she thinks it’s normal and that all of the problems are the fault of other people.

Expanding denial to mean ‘focusing on enjoying the good parts of life instead of the bad things going on’ just dilutes the term to the point that it’s nearly meaningless, and doesn’t fit with the OP’s bit about lying.

This. Denial is a form of instant gratification, often at the expense of much worse pain down the road. In the above example, it’s probably less painful to admit that your wife has been unfaithful for the past month than it would be to discover she’d been unfaithful for the past couple of years.

This makes me think of the extreme opposite of denial, i.e. pessimism. Denial isn’t a helpful response to real crises, but pessimism adds unnecessary suffering to non-crises. A pessimist sees the blinking red light on the instrument panel and cries until the plane crashes. A realist sees the blinking red light and takes action to prevent the plane from crashing. A denialist doesn’t even see the blinking red light at all, and misses the opportunity to take action.

As you’ve suggested, it’s difficult to argue against realism, which seems to occupy the middle ground between denial and pessimism.

This is a “You can lead a horse to water” thing…

Most people I know who are in denial are never going to go to a psychologist nor read any self-help psychology books. They are also not very bright people. A waste of time to try to help these folks if you ask me!

If parents weren’t in denial about how repulsive babies are, most of us would have been strangled at birth.

Rest of good post deleted.

True enough.

The bigger issue IMO is the problem REALLY a problem? Anything can be defined as a “problem”. For example. Some guy might be a slacker of sorts. Maybe got an AA degree in Computer Science, has an okay job, okay house, and ain’t starving. And all of this is because he just can’t focus, or is lazy, or likes World of Warcraft wayyy too much. Even though everyone pretty much knows if he had to he could get a good Phd and probably run a research department.

Some people would see this as serious problem. Others might be no problem at all. He might well be (if he wasn’t in denial) well, yeah I could probably do better but all in all this works for me.

I knew a lady. Her son died a stupid and tragic death at WAY to young an age (drugs not suprisingly). She totally denies how it went down detail wise over the years, even though she tried over the years to solve the problem. NOW, in her mind, after the death he did drugs once and overdosed. And otherwise he was a perfect and responsible saint…

Yeah, she is in some serious denial. But in this case accepting the reality would do no good.

I guess I don’t consider that “denial”. It’s kind of the same thing as with **WhyNot’**s husband. It’s one thing to recognize that something bad “might” happen. It’s quite another to live your life in constant fear of it and allow it to prevent you from actually living your life. Worrying about things makes them no more or less likely to happen.

I thought the word “denial” was usually used in the context of things like addiction: i.e. it’s denial that you have a problem. It’s bad because as long as you’re denying you have a problem, you’re not doing anything to address or amend it.

From my perspective as a physician, the problem with denial is that it can lead to getting an incorrect history, as well as the patient and family members having unrealistic expectations. In the context of giving history to a physician, denial is definitely a bad thing.

I’ve struggled with this. My son is autistic. He’s nearly 18 now. Every since he was 5, he has loved all things law enforcement. His whole life, people in his orbit have told him he can do anything he sets his mind to.

Well, when he graduates HS, he wants to go on to college with the end goal of eventually being a police officer. The cold hard truth of the matter is, he wont make it into college and he certainly doesn’t have the chops to be a LEO.

So what do I tell him? Keep chasing that dream? Or the cold hard reality?
Both options suck. Especially when you consider he’s got the drive and ambition to succeed, he just lacks the ability. :frowning:

Humans have an amazing ability to refuse to see things they don’t want to see.

And this is why the Aliens don’t like us. :stuck_out_tongue: