Denial: A psychological defense against trauma

Denial is a common psychological defense against trauma. Like many reactions to trauma, it does not only affect the trauma survivor or witnesses to trauma and their loved ones, but also society as a whole.[2] denial:Defense mechanism in which the existence of unpleasant realities is disavowed; refers to keeping out of conscious awareness of any aspects of external reality that, if acknowledged, would produce anxiety. Denial can involve denying the traumatic event happened, denying that it was traumatic, an inability to accept a PTSD diagnosis,  or minimizing the devastating impact of the trauma. Some people may also use victim blaming[3] or use false beliefs to reassurance themselves that nothing similar could happen to them or those they care for.[3]

Examples of Denial

  • “No, it can’t be true”
  • “That’s not possible, he can’t be gone, only yesterday he looked fine “
  • “I don’t believe it, I don’t want to believe it”
  • Endless questions about the circumstances, in an attempt to convince themselves that it could never happen to them

Denial often affects people who are otherwise emotionally and mentally healthy, not just trauma survivors. Denial which extends over the long term often leads to further problems for trauma survivors[1] by preventing or delaying recovery from post-traumatic stress disorder. Those who did not experience the trauma directly do not have recovery as a motivation for facing their denial, and their continuing denial can negatively affect survivors of trauma and provide a false sense of security in this unpredictable world. PTSD is more likely to develop if there is a lack of social support after the trauma. [1] For those who do experience trauma, denial and its companion, minimization, can prevent them receiving vital support from others in a time of need.

Quotes about Denial and Psychological Defenses

The most common emotional defense is avoidance (an ineffective coping skill for any stressor) as expressed through denial (e.g., “That wasn’t really bad, I barely remember it”).

― Brian Luke Seaward, Managing Stress in Emergency Medical Services

When he first said my diagnosis, I couldn’t believe it. There must be another PTSD than post-traumatic stress disorder, I thought. I have only heard of war veterans who have served on the front lines and seen the horrors of battle being diagnosed with PTSD. I am a Beverly Hills housewife, not a soldier. I can’t have PTSD. Well, I was wrong. Housewives can get PTSD, too, and yours, truly did.

― Taylor Armstrong, Hiding from Reality: My Story of Love, Loss, and Finding the Courage Within

Over and over, survivors of the Holocaust attest that they were warned of what was happening in Poland but could not believe it at the time, could not believe it later as it was happening to them, and still to this day cannot believe what they, at the same time, know to have occurred.

― Janet Walker, Trauma Cinema: Documenting Incest and the Holocaust

if you are a survivor of a trauma that happened a while ago, you have become an expert at detachment, denial, minimization, avoidance. Because that is what you have been doing in an attempt to forget about the unforgettable traumatic experience.  However, at some point the detachment/denial stops working so well.

― Myths & Realities: Wars and Disasters,  Raymond M Scurfield

Myth: If I full remember and re-experience aspects of my original trauma (through talking about it, thinking about it, focusing on it), I will lose control and either become sucked back into the vortex of that memory and never be able to come back out againor I will go crazy, or start crying and not be able to stop crying and not be able to stop, or become so enraged that I will hurt someone or myself.

Reality: Trauma survivors do not go crazy from remembering and talking about their trauma. But they may go crazy trying so desperately to deny the undeniable fact that the trauma happened, that it hurt then and it hurts now, that it has not gone away and that it needs to be dealt with.

― Myths & Realities: Wars and Disasters, Raymond M Scurfield

In his influential ‘just world’ theory, Lerner (1980) argued that emotional wellbeing is predicated on the assumption that the world is an orderly, predictable and just place in which people get what they deserve. Whilst such assumptions are objectively false, Lerner argued that individuals have considerable investment in maintaining them since they are conducive to feelings of self—efficacy and trust in others. When they encounter evidence contradicting the view that the world is just, individuals are motivated to defend this belief either by helping the victim (and thus restoring a sense of justice) or by persuading themselves that no injustice has occurred. Lerner (1980) focused on the ways in which the ‘just world’ fallacy motivates victim-blaming…

― Michael Salter, Organised Sexual Abuse

Denial by Others

When I got in, my mum said, ‘Tracey, what’s wrong with you?’ I showed her my coat, the dirt and the stains, and told her ‘I’m not a virgin any more.’ She didn’t call the police or make any fuss. She just washed my coat and everything carried on as normal, as though nothing had happened. But for me, my childhood was over, I had become conscious of my physicality, aware of my presence and open to the ugly truths of the world. At the age of thirteen, I realised that there was a danger in innocence and beauty, and I could not live with both. (describing childhood rape)

― Tracey Emin, Strangeland

A mother, driving while intoxicated, was involved in a motor vehicle crash that resulted in her young daughter becoming a quadriplegic from injuries sustained in the crash. One morning the mother arrived in the ICU and stood over her child’s bed announcing she had purchased a brand new scooter on the way to the hospital and that the scooter would belong to the child when she went home.

― Neurobiologically Informed Trauma Therapy with Children and Adolescents: Understanding Mechanisms of Change, Linda Chapman

Being Scared-off by Evil Lastly, we deny the presence of evil because we are terrified by the horrendously hurtful, cruel, and bloody kinds of evil people tell us about—if we are willing to listen. This was poignantly brought home during an interdisciplinary case conference involving a resident who was counseling for the first time a woman who had been sexually abused. As we worked with him, it became clear that he was resisting entering what he called the ‘psychic cave” of her sealed—off experience from which she was shouting for assistance. Because of his resistance, he was not providing her the support and guidance she so desperately needed, and he was not facilitating her working through the abuse and hurt that were continuing to impact her life. As he was confronted about this at one point in the conference, he stated tearfully: “I’m afraid if I help her move into her memories. I will have to go with her, and if I go with her, my view of the world as a basically good and safe place will be shattered. I’m not sure I can handle that for myself, or be able to think about the fact that my wife and kids may be more vulnerable living in this world than I can be comfortable believing” (Means 1995, 299).

― J. Jeffrey Means, Trauma and Evil: Healing the Wounded Soul

Most people, given the choice to face a hideous or terrifying truth or to conveniently avoid it, choose the convenience and peace of normality. That doesn’t make them strong or weak people, or good or bad people. It just makes them people.”

― Jim Butcher

She was so upset about a blog that maybe a total of six people read yet had no compassion for her granddaughters who had suffered the physical and emotional pains of sexual abuse and whose lives were changed forever. The two cannot even be compared, yet when someone is in denial about what happened, they cannot perceive what is true. It seemed too hard for her to let her mind go there and believe her grandson could do such terrible things.” ― Erin Merryn, Living for Today: From Incest and Molestation to Fearlessness and Forgiveness

On top of the abuse and neglect, denial heaps more hurt upon the child by requiring the child to alienate herself from reality and her own experience. In troubled families, abuse and neglect are permitted; it’s the talking about them that is forbidden.”

― Marcia Sirota

References

1. Coping with Trauma and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Beckham & Beckham (printable file)

2. Trauma and Recovery,  Judith Herman,  p9.

3. Organised Sexual Abuse,  Michael Salter

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5 thoughts on “Denial: A psychological defense against trauma

  1. Denying my own truth is probably my hardest struggle. But I am beginning to realize that since I was surrounded by adults in various authority positions who were also denying my trauma, I was ultimately conditioned to believe I was the only one who saw it/knew about it. So then I figured I must just be crazy/dramatic/misinterpreting (which helped me cope with both the trauma and the failure of others to intervene). And that is very hard to undo. Great post.

    Like

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