Denial: choosing fantasy over reality

What does it mean to be in denial?


Denial is a very common thing. Instead of saying their friend is an alcoholic, someone might say they are “fond of the drink”, thus denying the scale of the problem. Denial is common in dysfunctional families, where problems habitually get swept under the carpet and abnormal parental behaviour is treated as if it is normal. And it’s common in relationships; often, people will admit they turned a blind eye to problems for years until they became too big to ignore.


These are all obvious examples of denial, but American psychologist and cognitive behavioural therapist Dr Jonathan Grayson uses the word in a slightly looser and more interesting way. Denial is comparing reality to fantasy, writes Grayson. With death, denial isn’t some delusional fantasy where you believe your partner is alive; rather, you compare the present to how much better life would be if your partner were still alive. Of course, life might be much better if they were still alive. On the other hand, maybe something terrible might have happened in the future. ‘Of course, something more terrible in the future isn’t part of the fantasy comparison’, says Grayson. ‘In comparisons between real life and fantasy, fantasy always wins, because you don’t include problems in fantasies.’


Another example of what Grayson calls the ‘wishing ritual’. A woman in a bad relationship knows all her partner’s faults, but says she can’t leave him because she loves him. He can sometimes be wonderful, she says, wishing he were that way all the time. What she’s really saying, argues Grayson, is she loves him 20 per cent of the time and wishes the other 80 per cent would change. If he changed, however, he would be someone else. Does she really love him? Maybe not. Maybe she loves 20 per cent of him, suggests Grayson, and what she needs to do is find someone with more of the qualities she loves and less qualities that she wants to change. ‘Perhaps no one will be perfect’, says Grayson, ‘but she could do better than 20 per cent’.



Sad woman holding cards.
Acceptance is hard, but it's better than being trapped in a fantasy you can never have.

People choose denial, says Grayson, because there is a short-term payoff – you avoid the loss that comes with acceptance. If the woman accepts her true feelings for her partner and ends the relationship, her friends will tell her it’s great she finally left him. ‘But what about her fantasy relationship, the one in which she clung to 20 per cent wishing it was more?’, asks Grayson. That fantasy sustained her; now, it’s gone.


Similarly, imagine a gambler who stops gambling. Everyone congratulates him, he will get out of debt and improve his family life. It’s a time of triumph, but he’s sad. Why? ‘Because he will never be rich’, says Grayson. ‘He’ll spend the rest of his life being just like everyone else. Again, this is his fantasy, because in reality he probably never was going to be rich.’


Even in mourning, denial and ‘wishing’ can initially seem easier than acceptance. When in wishing mode, the person says, “Life would be better if my wife were still here”. In acceptance, this becomes, “my wife is gone”. The sadness of the wishing statement ‘doesn’t come close to the stark reality of moving towards acceptance’, says Grayson. Mourning is about ‘moving from fantasy to acceptance’. You might always miss your partner, but you can also make the most of the life you have. Real acceptance is hard, but remaining in wishing mode keeps you trapped in a fantasy you can never have – just like the gambler and the lover.


Imagine you’ve lost your arm. Obviously, life would be better with two arms. Still, Grayson asks us to consider which makes more sense: learning to have the best one-armed life possible, or comparing every activity to how much better it would be if you had two arms – something that will never happen.


Acceptance involves loss, but it allows us to live a better, more real life. ‘Overcoming the wishing ritual means moving from denial to acceptance, from fantasy to reality’, to quote Dr Grayson again. ‘Reality may not be as pretty as fantasy, but it is far better than the misery of wishing.’


(First published in Southern Star on 30.01.2020)