The Psychology of Self-Deception - Ego Defence 1 of 10: Denial - Deepstash

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Self Deception Or, Ego Defences

In psychoanalytic theory, ego defenses are unconscious processes that we deploy to diffuse the fear and anxiety that arise when who we think we are or who we think we should be (our conscious ‘superego’) comes into conflict with who we really are (our unconscious ‘id’).

There are a great number of ego defenses, and the combinations and circumstances in which one uses them reflect on one's personality. One could go so far as to argue that the self is nothing but the sum of its ego defenses. While people cannot entirely escape from ego defenses, they can gain some insight into how they use them.


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Denial: The Simple (?) Refusal To Admit

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.


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“On Death And Dying” Or, The 5 Stages Of Grief

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.


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The Model: Criticism And Disclaimer

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.


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Denial: An Immature Ego Defence

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.


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Denial: An Easily Spotted Ego Defence, But An Easily Ascribed To

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.


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Be Careful Where You Levy The Charge Of Denial

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.


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Denial VS Negative Hallucination

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.


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“An idea is something that won’t work unless you do.” - Thomas A. Edison

We deceive ourselves to protect ourselves, but the fact remains: we deceive ourselves; and, so, we harm ourselves. We can’t do a lot about it, but maybe we can do a little, if we know what it is that we do. A 10-part series.

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