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What Does Being “In Denial” Actually Mean?

Disregard Denial

I was part of a discussion last week on the subject of denial. Because denial has many layers, I thought I'd dive deeper into the meaning.

Relating to someone’s inability to see the dire shape a situation or relationship in their life might be in, we’ve all heard or used the phrase “He’s/She’s just in denial.”

But what does it actually mean to be “in denial?”

Merriam-Webster’s definition of denial: Refusal to admit the truth or reality of something, refusal to acknowledge something unpleasant; And as a term of Psychology: denial is defense mechanism in which confrontation with a personal problem or with reality is avoided by denying the existence of the problem or reality.

© JohnHain via pixabay

Why do we go into denial?

“Denial is a defense mechanism.”

Have you ever heard or witnessed something so terrible that your mind couldn’t absorb it as true? I have. At times, truth hit so hard or felt so horrific that my mind couldn’t immediately grasp it. Our brain has what I believe to be "shock absorbers."

An example I will never forget: When my son was in the second grade a well-known and dearly loved teacher at his school was hit between two vehicles and killed in the school parking lot. This happened a few feet from where we were standing. It was a confusing, shocking scene. Every second seemed to slow down as the world went silent around us.

My first thoughts were that it had to be a joke, it must be some type of staged presentation. I couldn't believe what we were seeing. I remember thinking this isn’t real, surely this isn’t real. Everyone seemed to be frozen in the moment. It was impossible to process what was happening in those first minutes.

In the following weeks when I would see other families who had witnessed it with us, inevitably the shock and sadness of that day would come up. I was astonished by a common thing most remembered; almost all who were present that day said they too experienced initial thoughts of disbelief, thinking that it wasn’t really happening.

One person after another said “I thought the cars were messing around. We didn’t think it was real. I thought it was a joke.”

It took time for everyone to grasp that something this horror could be reality.
There are times when reality is too shocking and painful to take in all at once. Especially when it’s a truth that will turn your world upside down.

In relation to having a son, daughter or other Loved One possibly having a frightening addiction, alcohol problem, or substance use disorder (SUD), truth of this magnitude at first can be extremely challenging to accept.

It takes time. Acceptance of a painful reality is a process.

If it's happening to you, be open to the truth and gentle with yourself. If it's happening to someone you know, tread lightly and with compassion.

Turning a Blind Eye

"Everything was perfect and healthy here in Denial Land." ~Jim Butcher

We have heard of those who “turn a blind eye” to a Loved One’s destructive behavior. I've heard this blind eye theory pointed to many times about someone who is living in the midst of another's addiction, deception, or betrayal.

But I do not agree that having knowledge of something damaging, and not appearing to address it, means you are allowing it.

I tend to look deeper. I believe it's possible that the person may know something is wrong, but not yet be sure what it is exactly.

Maybe they’ve been made aware, but are still looking for any evidence that it’s not true. It is human to hold onto the hope that what is happening is something else, something a little less than terrible.

It's also very possible they're being lied to by someone they love and think they can trust, while being told they're crazy to suspect anything. And they're not sure what to believe.

Whatever the scenario, the acceptance of something life-shattering is gradual, it's a journey. One that involves grief and soul searching.

People come to truth and understanding at their own pace. If a situation becomes urgent enough, our eyes might be forced open. But even still, acceptance takes time.

In the meantime, the best thing a bystander can offer is kindness and the absence of judgment.

An Honest Look in the Mirror

“Often when someone strives to be publicly awesome, they’re privately awful” ~ Dad

I recently learned about another type of denial on a Dr. Drew Pinsky podcast; this version is referred to as the Dunning-Kruger Effect. This effect occurs when someone has a blindness concerning their assessment of self.

If you’ve ever dealt with someone whose behavior was shockingly selfish, incompetent or unethical, yet they describe themselves grandiosely to be of great moral integrity; and they’re not only clueless that their behavior is off, they’re confident that it’s acceptable and justified, you likely saw the Dunning-Kruger Effect at work.

A common cause of this lack of self-realization is an injured, fragile ego. This person needs to see themselves different. Blindness to self can also develop out of the habit of justifying wrong behaviors, or masking areas of fear and shame.

Substance use can also be a cause of impaired self-perception.

(Sometimes it results from all of the above.)

For whatever reason, one can veer unbelievably far from truth and reality with no way of knowing how to just drop it and get real. And then it becomes ingrained with what they believe.

These are instances when a person is literally unable to assess themselves realistically. They don't get it, they can't see it, they don't hear it.

When dealing with this, arguing the facts does more damage than good. You will only find yourself on a fast track to frustration.

Don't give up hope that one day they may become aware of themselves, it happens! But your well-being can't be hinged upon it happening for someone else. Step back, be kind, set boundaries to protect your well-being and pursue your own peace of mind.


In our quest to see ourselves in an honest light, a great equation to follow is this one: accountability plus humility, combined with openness to truth.

"Truth is what works." ~William James

There is nothing in this world that can't be improved by truth combined with humility, compassion and kindness. Sometimes, this receipe will even heal the wound.

Still learning,


Annie Highwater is a Writer, Speaker, Podcast Host and Family Advocate. She has a particular interest in family pathology and concepts of dysfunction, addiction, alcoholism and conflict. Annie published her memoir, Unhooked: A Mother’s Story of Unhitching from the Roller Coaster of Her Son’s Addiction, in 2016. Her story sheds light on the personal challenges facing the affected parents and family members, and illustrates how family dynamics both help and hinder the recovery process. Annie’s second book, Unbroken, Navigating the Madness of Family Dysfunction, Addiction, Alcoholism and Heartache was published in August of 2018. She resides in Columbus, Ohio and enjoys writing, long distance running, hiking, the great outdoors and visiting her son in California as often as possible.

Listen to our Coming Up for Air podcast on Denial here



In your comments, please show respect for each other and do not give advice. Please consider that your choice of words has the power to reduce stigma and change opinions (ie, "person struggling with substance use" vs. "addict", "use" vs. "abuse"...)

  1. I found the Dunning-Kruger Effect to be very enlightening. We are dealing with a person who seems to be stuck here. In situations when we have tried to explain how her behavior was affecting others, specifically her own child there is a complete and total inability to see this. She becomes angry and indignant and attempts to make us look like we don’t know what we are talking about. And to make it more difficult, because she appears to be doing well in her recovery, the family drug court continues to push for her to get more access to her daughter.

    While we also believe she should have more access, we want it to be safe and gradual. It is scary to think that her daughter, our guardian’s, emotional health may suffer throughout this process. Well of course it already has, because no one is removed from a parent without having a sack full of emotional baggage leading up to the process and continuing thereafter. We feel unsupported and made to feel as though we don’t want mom and daughter to be reunited. We do want that, but only if and when mom shows she can truly function in healthy patterns. The responsibility is very heavy and confounding trying to figure out what is the right thing to do.

    1. Dear Grateful, I completely understand your fears and reservations. In my experience the court tends to decide in the direction of preserving the family as a unit – the big picture, versus what is best case by case for a child. That gap is where worrisome things can occur. I would say it’s best to take it day by day, apply concepts from the CRAFT method when it comes to communicating with your daughter and do your best to communicate simple truths and love to her daughter. I was that little girl. My Mother was given full access, even when there were episodes that should have resulted in having me removed from her care, I remained with her. However! There were adults in my life that spoke worth to me, told me truth in simple terms and maintained a positive, protective presence in my life as much as they were able. And it had a profound, life-LONG effect. You never know what a day can bring, your daughter can begin awakening to truth about herself, her daughter will absorb and remember every positive thing done for her and the outcome can be good down the road. As heavy as it all is, there is great hope! CRAFT helps a lot when it comes to responding and even influencing. You are not alone, you are not without resources and it’s not over yet! Stay positive and hopeful, things can always work out even better than we expect. ~Annie

  2. This is amazing insight and a gift for readers! Keep it coming. This is such a strong barrier to getting treatment on the part of the family AND the individual and to bring awareness of it and “name it” is really helpful. Thank you!