The power of denial: for survival or destruction?

“It won’t happen to me” is a type of denial that helps us to survive, yet it can also have the opposite effect, moving us toward destruction. How can one mental stance hold out powerful potential for such opposing outcomes?

Let’s start with what we mean in psychology when we use the word “denial.” It is a defense mechanism in which the existence of unpleasant internal or external realities are kept out of conscious awareness. On the plus side, denial helps us live. Imagine if all we did was think about all the risks that we face each day by just leaving the house or just by being alive. We would become so emotionally overwhelmed that it would be hard to function. A certain type and degree of denial is healthy. Denial helps us enjoy life and not always be on guard and anxious.

There is also the type of denial that does not help us survive, but can be destructive. It is the type of denial that allows us to self-indulge without considering the real risks to self and/or others. It prevents us from fully thinking through an action before taking the action. It can also allow us to continue a destructive behavior even though there have been negative consequences of that particular behavior before.

A good example is the person with a drinking and/or drug problem. It has been said that “the person with an alcohol/drug problem is often the last person to know they have a problem.” Despite many negative consequences over a long period of time that is obvious to others, the user will often deny or minimize (partially  deny) the problem. He or she is still invested in seeking the“benefits” of the alcohol and/or drug use.

This type of denial allows us to indulge ourselves in behaviors that can or do have negative consequences by not letting us think about those consequences. We want what we want when we want it and denial allows us to go for it. It allows us to indulge in risky and at times foolish behaviors without the presence of protective anxiety; it allows us to fully pursue pure pleasure without attendant anxiety.  It allows us to proceed with the mindset of “I’m okay and nothing terrible will happen.”   Then it happens.

So denial can serve two opposing functions. It can help us navigate and survive in a challenging world filled with real risks and dangers, but it can also allow us to engage in risky and dangerous behaviors.


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