It’s hard to imagine that denial can be helpful in any way. Many believe that denial, in fact, lies at the heart of addictive behaviors, stymies growth, and inflames many maladaptive behaviors. But according to Holly Parker, author of Reality Bites: How Denial Helps And What To Do When It Hurts, denial is not only a very normal coping technique, it is adaptive in many situations.
Parker begins with the reminder that denial in life is inescapable. Denial invades every aspect of our lives from our desire to protect our children from inevitable harm, to our desire to sustain relationships without conflict. Steering clear of these unpleasant truths is often simply an effort to avoid pain, and seemingly perfectly rational.
There are many ways we can use denial. We can use outright denial, arguing that certain things don’t apply to them, or that they are not responsible for them. Or we can avoid facts altogether; choosing to believe something entirely different or cherry-picking our beliefs to conform to what we want to be true.
Denial is also a wonderful vehicle for self-enhancement, allowing us to exaggerate our positive points – or fabricate positive illusions – all the while downplaying our faults. Yet positive reinterpretation is also a form of denial, Parker says, and one that allows us to look back upon our adversities and see them as powerful turning points in our lives.
Occurring in many forms, denial has three purposes: it helps us tone down unpleasant feelings and magnify pleasant ones; it allows us to cling to viewpoints that we hold dear and it enables us to hold on to our status quo.
“[Denial] lends time to emotionally prepare ourselves before we attend to what distresses us. It paints a challenging matter in hues that offer relief and that help us marshal needed strength as we cope. It hands us a sense of control and the anticipation of a sparkling future, all of which impart a greater sense of security, calm and spiritedness as we march into the murkiness of an unforeseeable future,” writes Parker.
Chronic illness is one area in which denial can be especially adaptive. Parker cites a 2015 study where older adults who used positive interpretation to cope with chronic illness were found to be more protected from loneliness. Safeguarding ourselves from losses is integral to our nature, and denial can be a way that we reframe these painful feelings, making them more palatable. One example Parker gives is forgiving another person through reinterpreting their actions, allowing us to see them as more charitable than we would have otherwise.
Denial also powerfully influences how we see ourselves. Parker points to one study where people from less affluent cultures downplay undesirable traits more than people from more affluent cultures. We can also downplay sexual identity, race, and mental health issues in order to fit in. But denial can also be used to shape how we make decisions, such as overriding impulse decisions to save money for retirement, exerting self-control to accomplish tasks like studying or eating healthy and making sacrifices to strengthen bonds with loved ones.
And as much as denying our vulnerability can sever connection, denial also powerfully facilitates romance.
“When people turn down the dial on their partner’s faults and turn up the dial on their partner’s gifts, it forecasts joy in a relationship,” writes Parker.
Parker says that much of learning to use denial effectively requires that we see it in a multidimensional light. On the one hand, most people fare better when they feel they have a greater sense of control in their lives. On the other hand, in investment banking, the more in control traders feel, they less money they bring in and the worse managers judge their work. Denial also helps us maintain basic adaptive beliefs such as: people are decent and bad things are probably not going to happen to us; life is generally fair so long as we are decent and do the right thing and as long as we make prudent choices we can control what happens to us and safeguard ourselves against harm.
When we take time to stop and reflect on our circumstances – and Parker offers a helpful exercise for this – we can catch the stories that hold us back and begin to cultivate those that move us closer toward our goals. Further, we can also see that denial, while it helps us maintain our positive beliefs about the world around us – overlooking mass suffering, potential natural disasters, hurtful biases toward others, and even our own mortality – can be challenged. Through compassion and awareness we can better connect with ourselves and those around us, and ultimately come to see that even the awareness of death can be incredibly life-giving.
With thoughtful insight and sound reasoning, Parker challenges us to rethink denial, and to see it as neither good nor bad, but rather a normal part of the human experience which, in the right circumstances, can be used to help navigate challenging situations, reinterpret difficult life events and overlook faults that may rob us of joy.
When Reality Bites: How Denial Helps and What To Do When It Hurts
Holly Parker, PhD