The Psychology of Denial & Rationalization. Not a very sexy title, but it’s really a good topic.


I received a comment yesterday, about a past post I’d written about personality traits. The person wanted a follow up because there was so much more to understand and learn.

I don’t know exactly what focus the asker wanted more insight into. Since I already wanted to do a piece on denial I figured why not give it a go. I had tried to write one quite a while back, but I just couldn’t get it the way I wanted, so I gave up.

Here’s to second chances. {And long explanations. It’s who I am and what I do and it’s necessary so that I can explain everything.} Ps. this could be a mechanism called rationalization. That’s where I tell you the reason for something. The reason is true, but, it’s covering for something else that I’m not aware of.



Threatening situations tend to produce anxiety. This unpleasant state can lead to emotion focused coping that is defensive in nature.   Psychodynamic psychologists have identified various defense strategies that allow us to reduce anxiety caused by stressful situations, or our own shortcomings.


Denial is one of many defense mechanisms that each of us has, but are usually unaware of. So let’s start with some definitions.*


Any mental process used to avoid, deny or distort sources of threat or anxiety, especially threats to one’s self-image. Many of these defenses were discovered by Freud who assumed they operate unconsciously. Often they create blind spots in awareness.



Defenses are very important. Who could function while being aware of every awful thing that goes on around us?

As children, we develop coping skills that help us deal with the uncertainties and difficulties in our lives. This is a normal aspect of development. It only becomes problematic when these defenses are taken into adulthood and are no longer necessary and create difficulties.



This is one of the most basic, and earliest defense to develop. It is used to protect oneself from an unpleasant reality by refusing to accept it or believe it. And when it sets in, you cannot perceive it. It’s like a magician waved a magic wand and it disappeared.

The examples the books use, in my opinion, are not helpful enough, because as in the hearing of someone’s death, or getting terrible results back from a medical test, our first reaction is denial. No, that can’t be. However, these usually have to be replaced by reality at some point.

We have all no doubt had an experience with this. The difference here is that we do ultimately have to accept it because it is a tangible reality.

So how do we deal with things that aren’t so tangible? We can deny something for our entire lives. It can be dancing in front of our face and we don’t see it. Other people do, and they may actually tell us whatever it is they see. We, however, don’t believe them.

The easiest example would be a cheating spouse. I’ll mix things up and say it’s the wife. She’s having an affair. Her husband is in denial. He believes that she works late. He believes that she is going on business trips. Other people may see her with another man and even tell her husband. He will make excuses that he believes. He has to. The anxiety and pain that he would deal with if he could admit it to himself are so strong that it is easier and safer to just not see.

It is, in some way like being deaf, dumb and blind to whatever it is your psyche can’t handle.

Some parents are abusive to their children. Sometimes they single one out and are great to the rest. Don’t ask me why. I don’t know. I do know that it does occur. Often, the child who is being abused goes into denial. Remember, we develop it to protect the self. The child loves the parents, is dependent on them and cannot allow himself to see the hurtful things they do. This can go on for an entire lifetime. It doesn’t have to stop when the child grows up.

Actually, the child may pick an abusive partner, because this is what they believe “love” is. Friends see the bad behavior and tell you. And you tell them they don’t understand. He loves me. It’s just his way of showing it. What I’ve just described could be called a maladjusted defense. It’s doing more harm than good.

I decided I’m going to throw in “rationalization” because I’ve already mentioned it, and two is better than one.

Rationalization is making excuses. It justifies personal actions by giving “rational” explanations, but false reasons for them. Sometimes we are aware of what we are doing. Then it’s more like lying to save our skins.


We often believe that we are telling the truth. “The paper was due today, but I couldn’t get access to a computer until last night and there was power failure so I don’t have it”.

That all may be true. Except, if the person was assigned the paper three weeks ago, doing it at the last minute is not good management.



There are at least a dozen defenses that help us through life. As long as they do the job of protecting us when we need or needed the protection, it’s okay.

The problems happen when they do their jobs to well.

Since pretty much everyone from my family is deceased, it won’t be giving away any secrets to tell my parents story.

My parent’s story:

Mom was an overweight, girl with glasses and buck teeth. Already you have a negative impression of her. She was also very bright and had two younger sisters who teased her mercilessly. I don’t know what other things added to her lack of self-esteem, but those issues happened were fairly early in her life, and the early things usually have the greatest impact. And much to my dismay, are the things we can’t usually remember. That’s WRONG!

She grew up, dieted (always had beautiful hair) and from pictures I’ve seen of her, didn’t look so bad. In her High School Year Book they referred to her as the girl with the Colgate Smile. Both her sisters married before she did, and both married well. An engineer and a psychiatrist. She worked and waited.

Mom finally married at age 28, to a 30 year old, very handsome, divorced man who already had a ten year old daughter. His first marriage was at age 18.

His dad was a tyrant and his mother was chronically depressed. He was also the oldest of three siblings. However, his younger sibs looked up to him. He dropped out of middle school and hitch hiked cross country with a friend instead of going to school. He was bright, but also emotionally damaged.

In any event, if I recall, my mom said she married him because he was the first to ask. (That may have been true, but he was also handsome and charming which most likely boosted her own esteem.) I’m not saying that she didn’t love him or that he didn’t love her. It was not healthy love.

He chased her for two years before they married. She was a step up for him. Educated and a professional. He was a salesman. Shoes, Chow Mein, whatever.


my mom and dad and grandmother


What was it that my mother wouldn’t see? I’ll stick to the main one. Skirt Chasing. He couldn’t stay faithful to his girlfriends, much less his wife.

And he worked late and played cards and had all kinds of reasons for not being home. And she bought them. She had to. She believed that she couldn’t make it on her own with two kids, so she went into denial.

My sister died when I was 14 and she was 17. The marriage deteriorated after that. My dad’s behavior just kept getting worse. He actually had to not come home twice in one week for my mom to finally confront him. He wanted out but wasn’t man enough to leave.

The rationalization comes later. I had asked why she stayed so long, knowing that she wasn’t happy and with the denial broken, she could say that she knew some of it.

She stayed because of us kids. That’s often true and real.

However, I found out from one of her good friends, that when they were first married, they’d gone away with another couple for the week end. My dad had met another woman, and left my mom with her friends to be with her.

Whoa. No kids yet. What the F—? I never told her I knew. Either she would have denied it, or it would have hurt her, so I let it be. Except for me. I could not understand how anyone would accept that unless they were so damaged that they didn’t know they had a choice. And I guess that’s what she was.



Defense mechanisms are necessary for survival. They help us cope with the struggles and traumas of life.

There are, however, times when these coping skills hurt us rather than help us. And if you’re the individual with the problem, you won’t be able to see it or hear about it unless or until you are ready.


I am sure you know people with the kids of issues and problems I’ve describe. Friends who stay with partners who drink too much, spend too much, cheat, lie, whatever it is you see, but somehow they don’t.

Being a good friend, you may have pointed some of this out. If you pushed, you may have lost a friend. Or maybe just irritated them.

The thing is, that we need those defenses to survive, even when they are maladaptive. You can’t strip away a person’s outer shell without leaving them naked. And you do not want to be responsible for leaving a person with their soul naked.

So, you may just have to accept the fact that your mother, brother, sister, child or friend is not capable of seeing the things you do. You see them being hurt and you want to help. But you can’t. If you can understand and be there for them, well, that’s great. If what they are doing is hurting you too, the maybe you have to be the one to say adios.

You probably think your “whomever” is really stupid. You can’t understand. And maybe, just maybe, you too are in denial about something and can’t see it at all.

I saw this saying somewhere and I fell in love with it. And now, of course am not sure exactly how it goes. So this will have to do. It kind of sums this up nicely.


Thanks for reading.




Those of you who have following me for a while, know that my short term memory, well sucks.


something I haven’t done in over 40 years


People and experts wrote that it would return if I did exercises.

Well, it hasn’t returned.

So I went to a store and said, I want my short term memory back.


They asked me if I had a receipt. I said “no”.


And they told me I was shit out of luck.

Fortunately for them, I can’t remember what store it was, or I’d go back and sue.