In this new series on self-deception, I will spotlight 10 of the most important ego defences, starting this week with denial.
Denial, probably the most basic of ego defences, is the simple refusal to admit to certain unacceptable or unmanageable aspects of reality, even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. An example of denial is a middle-aged physician who ignores the classic signs and symptoms of a heart attack—crushing central chest pain radiating into the left arm, associated with sweating, shortness of breath, and nausea—and casually carries on with his game of golf.
Here is a second, much more vivid—not to say sordid—example of denial: Some years ago, the British press reported on an unusually macabre story. Ten years earlier, an elderly widow died from an embolism. But the widow’s two middle-aged daughters queried this cause of death, and asked the funeral parlour to keep their mother’s cadaver in cold storage while they sought to obtain a second opinion.
Ten years later, the cadaver had still not been interred. Instead, the daughters had been visiting the cadaver at regular intervals, each time asking for it to be removed from cold storage and displayed in a chapel of rest. The younger sister, a bank worker, sat with the cadaver every Saturday at lunch-time; the elder sister, a caterer, visited separately to touch up her mum’s lipstick and foundation and place fresh padding in her stomach cavity. With the passing years, the cadaver had decomposed into little more than a skeleton with a piece of stretched, scaly skin over the head and upper body. This unconventional although entirely legal arrangement had so far cost the sisters five figures in fees, replacement coffins, and make-up.
A source from within the family told the press, “They don’t seem to think that what they’re doing is in any way bizarre, but it’s disturbing.” The local vicar added, “I did not know this was happening, but I worry what this is doing to the two daughters. They are in denial and it cannot be helping them in their grieving process … Perhaps they are numb to it now after ten years but I hope it ends for their sake … I have never heard of anything like this before. It is not like visiting a grave at all, it is a denial that death has happened.”
In her classic of 1969, On Death and Dying, the psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross introduced a model of bereavement that is commonly referred to as the Five Stages of Grief. This model describes, in five discrete stages, a process by which people react to grief and tragedy, especially terminal illness or catastrophic loss. The five stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression (or grieving), and acceptance. People might move back and forth between the stages, often several times and at great speed, or they might get stuck in one of the earlier stages, failing to come to terms with their loss or fate. The model has been criticized on a number of grounds, but Kübler-Ross did emphasize that not all five stages need occur, or occur in the given order, and that reactions to illness, death, and loss are as diverse as the people experiencing them.
Sigmund Freud first formulated the concept of denial. His daughter Anna thought of it as an immature ego defence, first, because it is especially used in childhood and adolescence, and, second, because its continued use into adulthood leads to unhealthy and unhelpful behaviours and a complete failure to engage or come to terms with reality.
It is often difficult to verify the existence of an ego defence, but a person’s denial in the face of hard evidence to the contrary can easily be spotted by almost anyone else. Problems arise in the absence of hard evidence, not only because the denial can no longer be spotted, but also because it can be imagined or invented by others. Indeed, the charge of denial can be levied at anything and everything that a person can say or do that runs contrary to some pet theory about her, such that the pet theory can only ever be supported but never refuted.
For example, if a patient undergoing psychoanalysis is regarded by her analyst as being in denial about her sexual orientation, then both disagreeing with the analyst and having a string of heterosexual relationships can be taken to confirm her supposed homosexuality: “You’re only saying this because you’re in denial … You only did that because you’re in denial.” As a result, the patient cannot possibly prove her heterosexuality to the analyst and might even come to believe that the analyst is correct.
An ego defence closely related to denial is negative hallucination, which is the unconscious failure to perceive uncomfortable sensory stimuli, for instance, the failure to see something that should clearly be seen, hear something that should clearly be heard, or feel something—such as crushing chest pain—that should clearly be felt. Thus, a common experience in conversation or in a social setting is for a person to ‘edit out’ a challenging or contradictory remark. The person momentarily goes blank, and then carries on as though nothing significant had been said. The ability to hear painful truths is one of the many pre-requisites of being a good listener.