Lesson 2 of 7 - learn to communicate effectively

Response Options with
Someone in Major Denial

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW
Member NSRC Expert's Council

The Web address of this article is https://sfhelp.org/cx/apps/denial.htm

Updated  04-03-2015

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      This is one of a series of brief articles on how to respond effectively to annoying social behavior. An effective response" occurs when you get your primary needs met well enough, and both people feel respected and heard well-enough.

      This article offers useful responses to someone you experience as being in major denial." It assumes you're familiar with...

  • the intro to this nonprofit Web site and the premises underlying it

  • self-improvement Lessons 1 and 2

  • basic options for all responses

  • how to give effective feedback to someone

  • perspective on the wound of reality distortion


      Psychological denial is a type of unconscious reality distortion which protects us from experiencing painful awareness. Habitual and/or extreme denials are a sure sign of a disabled true Self. We judge other people to be in denial when our observation of - or intuition about - their behavior doesn't match their own perception ("I am not depressed - just a little tired, is all!") Denials range from minor and harmless to major and harmful ["I am NOT addicted to shoplifting (or whatever)!"]

      This brief YouTube video provides perspective on reality distortion. The video mentions eight self-improvement lessons in this Web site - I've simplified that to seven.

      Can you think of someone in your life who needs to deny something significant? "Significant" may refer to an addiction; major relationship, health, or financial problems; depression or grief; child or elder neglect or abuse, self-neglect, family dysfunction, major prejudice, and/or illegal  behavior. The master denial is of itself ("I am not denying anything!")

      How do you feel around someone in significant denial? Anxious? Critical? Responsible? Indifferent? Scornful? Concerned? Amused? Hopeless? Resigned? Motivated? Your reaction probably depends on the nature of your relationship and your circumstances - e.g. you'd react differently to a parent denying major illness vs. an acquaintance.

      Denials are not conscious choices, so they will rarely respond to "willpower," logical reasoning, or confrontations. Have you ever tried to convince someone that they're denying something that is obvious to you? What reaction did you get - anger? Arguing? Resentment? Explanations? Withdrawal? Cutoff? Whining ("I can't help it)? Excuses? Attacks? ("Oh yeah? Well you're not admitting _____!") Changing the subject? Threats? Silence?

      "Breaking" or dissolving denials is a paradox - we must become aware of our unawareness. Yet people do this if and when their illusions clearly cause a major trauma, like an arrest, divorce, death, heart attack, DUI, law suit, bankruptcy, or a child running away. My observation is that significantly-wounded adults usually don't hit true ''bottom'' and end protective denials until mid-life. Is that your experience?

      Trying to persuade someone in denial to "get real" is usually unrealistic. The real problem is the person's unawareness or denial of early-childhood abandonment, neglect, and abuse {trauma) and resulting psychological wounds. 

      If you believe someone is in significant denial, you can...

  • Do nothing now. Continue observing; and pity or scorn the person for "not being real / open / genuine / in touch" etc.; or...

  • Minimize or avoid contact with the person or certain topics with them; and/or...

  • Gossip ("Poor Brenda is totally denying her compulsion to be perfect"); or...

  • Doubt your intuition and/or observation ("I'm probably imagining Juan's in denial"), or...

  • Frustrate both of you by trying to "fix" or "save" the denier, or...

  • Identify your feelings and needs, and assert them respectfully; and...

  • Evolve and use a strategy for identifying and relating to significantly-wounded adults and kids.

The last two are the most likely to meet your short and long-term needs. How?

Response Options

  • Review these requisites for an effective response

  • Check to see if your true Self is guiding you now. If not, make achieving that a priority and postpone your response.

  • If your attitude about you and the other person is genuine mutual respect, go ahead. If not, suspect that a false self rules you.

  • Identify what you feel relative to the person's denial, and why - e.g. concern, compassion, curiosity, smugness, pity, scorn, worry, amusement, indifference or detachment ("That's her  problem, not mine"), empathy, and/or frustration. Every emotion signals one or more legitimate needs. If you feel anything other than compassion and concern, suspect that a false self is causing your thoughts and feelings.

      If you're genuinely (vs. dutifully) concerned about the other person...

  • Avoid taking responsibility for "waking the person up" (choosing a Rescuer role). Reflect on and adopt these wise guidelines.  Trying to "fix" a wounded person without being asked to is inherently insulting. Helping a child in denial is an exception

      If you feel responsible for the person (like your child), you may need to have him or her "be courageous and responsible" and face their discomfort rather than hide from it. Then your response would seek to cause behavioral change to please you, not necessarily the other person.

  • Dig down to discover what you need from the other person, and decide whether to assert your needs and/or opinions.

      Your need will partly depend on your attitude about denial. For example, if your ruling subselves feel that denial is a weakness, you may need to regain respect for the person. If you feel denial is an involuntary protective reflex, you may feel compassion and empathy - specially if you have your own denials (!)

  • Ask older teens and adults if they're open to some personal feedback. Usually curiosity and politeness will yield "OK" Assuming and not asking is aggressive and disrespectful, and may hinder the person's hearing you.

  • Depending on what you need, consider responses like these...

To vent, inform, or learn

"(Name), are you open to hearing a summary of what I'm learning about personal (psychological) wounds?"

      If you get "No," respect that. If "OK," summarize the six psychological wounds - hilighting reality distortion. " This discussion can be specially useful if you are working to reduce your own wounds.

"I'm interested in your opinion about personal denial. Do you know what I mean by that?"

"Do you know anyone whom you feel is in major denial of something?"

"What do you think causes major denials?"

"How do you feel people should react to someone in harmful denial - like an ad-diction?"

"D'you feel anyone in your family is in major denial? If so, what are they denying, why, and what are the effects of their denial?"

"(Name), I feel you may be in protective denial about (whatever). Are you open to hearing why, and discussing it?"  Be cautious with this one, and respect "No" if you get it. If you get a "Yes," consider referring the person to Lesson 1 articles in this Web site.  . 

To cause action or set a limit

Denied psychological wounds - see this article.

Denied addiction - see this article on intervention

Denied abuse and/or neglect of a dependent - "(Name), I believe you're unintentionally harming ________. If you don't get professional help this week, I'm going to call (an appropriate authority, like the police, Child Protective Services, a community or state health agency, a church, etc,)

Denied illegal behavior - "(Name), you're breaking the law by (be specific). Unless you stop by (a specific date), I'm going to notify (an appropriate authority)." 

Denied self-neglect or abuse - "(Name), I'm really concerned for you. I fear (something specific) is going to happen unless you (make a specific change). From now on, I'm going to keep saying this - not to tell you how to live, but for my own self-respect."

  • Whatever response you choose, expect the other person to "resist" - i.e. to deny, excuse, explain, blame, go silent, deflect, bluster, scoff, joke, etc. Acknowledge their reaction with respectful empathic listening, and then repeat what you said originally calmly, with good eye contact. Repeat this sequence until you get your needs met or your needs change.

      Bottom line - you have many options to respond effectively to someone you feel is in harmful denial!


      This is one of a series of brief articles in Lesson 2 suggesting effective ways to respond to common annoying social behaviors. This article (a) offers perspective on the protective trait of personal denial, and (b) illustrates ways to respond effectively to someone in significant denial. The ways are based on...

  • keeping your true Self in charge,

  • maintaining a mutual-respect attitude,

  • clarity on your feelings, needs, and mutual rights, and...

  • fluency in the relationship skills of awareness, assertion, and empathic listening.

      For more perspective, see this article on responding well to dishonesty.

      Pause, breathe, and reflect - why did you read this article? Did you get what you needed? If not, what do you need? Who's answering these questions - your true Self, or ''someone else''?

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