Denial is one of the most well-known and common of all the defence mechanisms and it is likely that we have all engaged in it to varying degrees at some time or other. It is best understood as the refusal to accept or acknowledge reality.
Perhaps the greatest act of denial is when a person denies their Creator. We know that all human beings are born in a state of fitrah and with the propensity to know and worship their Lord and that His Signs are evident for us to see, “We will show them Our Signs in the universe, and in their own selves, until it becomes manifest to them that this (Quran) is the truth” (41:53). However most of mankind have chosen to deny this evident reality even when prophets (as) have been sent to the people with the message of truth. For whatever reason, people continuously choose to deny the truth.
A Psychological Explanation
From a psychological perspective, denial acts as a mechanism to protect us from uncomfortable or unbearable feelings such as anxiety, shame or guilt. It enables us to get on with our lives without having to face or deal with whatever is causing us emotional distress. However, defences such as denial require an immense amount of energy to maintain, and the emotional stress caused by the underlying problem never goes away. Instead the energy exerted is simply redirected elsewhere and can manifest in mental and even physical health conditions.
Denial is one of the simplest and most primitive defence mechanisms and can be witnessed in children from a young age. Children engage in denial to avoid being told off for ‘bad’ behaviour. A classic example is a child who may blankly deny having eaten the chocolate cake, when questioned by their parent, despite their mouth being covered in chocolate icing! Whilst many adults similarly avoid telling the truth or consciously lie for fear of punishment, denial differs as it is more of an unconscious process and often difficult to recognise for the person engaged in it.
Denial Has its Advantages
Denial can be adaptive in the sense it that it helps us avoid pain when we are suddenly exposed to overwhelming feelings. For example, in the early stages of grief, as it allows the person time to adjust to the loss of a loved one. Denial can also be adaptive in the sense that it helps people bond such as when we deny that displeasing traits exist in those that we love or admire.
From Minimisation to Outright Denial
Denial, as with many defence mechanisms, operates on a continuum. There may be some conscious awareness of an event but the person minimises or denies its importance e.g. I know he shouted at me but it doesn’t matter (denying one’s own feelings of hurt and that the other person has an anger issue). Sometimes people will admit they acted a certain way but will deny responsibility e.g. she made me do it….; everyone was laughing so I had to as well…..
More extreme forms of denial involve denying a problem is an issue e.g. I’m not addicted to gaming/work/drugs etc …, to full blown denial that a thought, feeling or event ever occurred e.g. I didn’t crash the car……!
Denying Feelings & Actions of Ourselves & Others
We deny our own feelings e.g. I am not jealous, and our own actions e.g. I never did/said that, as well as deny the feelings or actions of others e.g. he’s not angry he’s just tired; my child isn’t a bully; my teen doesn’t take drugs etc, all to protect us from experiencing and facing the overwhelming feelings of shame, guilt, fear or rejection and so on.
Learnt in Childhood
Often children are unwittingly taught to deny their own feelings when the adults around them make comments such as don’t be silly it’s nothing to get upset about, or, you can’t be angry at that …. These attitudes towards denying emotions are often cultural as epitomised in the societal expectations that ‘nice girls don’t get angry’ and ‘big boys don’t cry’ ….. However, when children are repeatedly exposed to these messages, they will learn to doubt and deny their own feelings which can lead to multiple problems in childhood that carry over into adult life.
Using Faith to Justify Our Denial
As Muslims we also have to be mindful not to use our religious beliefs to bolster or help justify our denial. For example, when a person denies
that a family member is abusing them and justifies not standing up to their oppressor, on the basis that they just need to be patient for the sake of Allah (swt). Whilst such situations are often complex in reality, this example serves to illustrate how a person can engage in denial that the other person is abusive, and denial by the person themselves that they are being abused in order to protect themselves from feelings of shame, humiliation, anger, fear and so on. Denying a reality such as abuse and using patience as a justification for not taking action is very different to patiently enduring the trials of life over which one has no immediate control.
Denial is thus a simple but also sophisticated defence mechanism that permeates many aspects of our lives. As Muslims we can also see how the whisperings of shaytan can manipulate our faith and virtues against us by using them to justify/rationalise our unhealthy thoughts/feelings and situations.
How Can We Notice & Work on Denial in Ourselves?
As denial is largely unconscious and often held in place by various unconscious thoughts, beliefs, and emotions, it can be hard to notice, unravel and work on in yourself, especially at a deeper level. Please do seek the help of a trained mental health professional if there are areas of your life causing you distress.
It is possible, however, through reflection and introspection to begin noticing areas of ourselves, or aspects of our lives, that we are avoiding or denying to some degree.
Writing in a notebook or journal provides an effective tool to help you reflect more deeply and gain some insight into yourself. Below are some exercises and questions to help you get started that you can reflect upon and write about:
Denial of Feelings
♥ Pick an emotion e.g anger, guilt, jealousy etc
♥ Think/write about times/situations when you have felt it?
♥ How do you express it?
♥ How do you feel when you think about this emotion (e.g. feeling guilt for feeling angry)
♥ Try and identify beliefs you have about it (e.g. If I feel sad it means I have weak faith)
♥ What messages have you received about this emotion from your childhood, family, culture?
♥ Can you identify areas in your life or situations where you deny this emotion?
♥ Reflect on how you deny this emotion (e.g. eat to stop feeling sad; sulk instead of expressing anger etc)
Denial of Problems
♥ When you have a problem – do you tend to make excuses or minimise it?
♥ If you have a problem are you waiting for some kind of ‘miracle’ to come and sort it out for you?
♥ Do you use your faith as an excuse to deny feelings or to avoid dealing with a difficult situation?
♥ How does denying your feelings & problems affect your faith? How do you think it affects your life?
Denial of Allah’s Favours
In Surah Rahman, Allah (swt) repeatedly asks us “Which of the favours of your Lord will you deny?”. He Knows us better than we know ourselves and therefore we are all guilty of denying a multitude of the favours He Bestows upon us.
♥ When we complain about suffering we are denying Allah’s Will as well as His Compassion and Mercy?
♥ How many things do we simply take for granted and deny that all we have is from Him?
♥ Do we momentarily deny His Existence or that He is the All Powerful when we attribute power and cause to things other than Him?
Reflect on this Quranic verse and notice how you deny the favours of our Lord, time and time again, so that you can begin to acknowledge, see and worship Him as He truly deserves. InShaAllah. ♥