Denial or Willful Ignorance

May 29, 2019
Denial is very common in situations of addiction or conflict. Although this willful ignorance provides momentary peace of mind, over time it can become highly destructive.

Psychoanalysis suggests that we all use some unconscious strategies to maintain our sanity. These strategies are called defense mechanisms. One of them is denial or willful ignorance. Although this strategy can lead to temporary peace, it can bring about many problems in the long run.

As the name implies, denial is the act of invalidating information that could be unpleasant or that you don’t want to recognize. All of this happens unconsciously. Willful ignorance is inappropriate, mostly because it doesn’t allow people to develop coping mechanisms.

“Thus, the subject-matter of a repressed image or thought can make its way into consciousness on condition that it’s denied. Negation is a way of taking account of what’s repressed.”

-Sigmund Freud-

Through denial, a person ignores something that bothers them. That something could involve dissatisfaction or conflict with themselves or with others. Thus, people who are addicted tend to deny their problem. We could say that willful ignorance is the same defense mechanism that an ostrich that puts their head in the ground uses.

A woman covering her eyes with her hands.

Manifestations of Denial

Denial manifests itself through thoughts, acts, and words. For example, a person who walks out of a room when they see someone person they don’t want to see, like an ex.

Another very common situation in which willful ignorance manifests is during an extremely painful situation. When a person you deeply care about dies, you might fantasize that they’ll come back to life or that they’ll communicate with you from the beyond. In other words, you may believe this person isn’t completely gone.

Something similar happens with fatal illnesses. Sometimes, the sick person may believe they’ve been misdiagnosed. For example, they may insist that the test results are wrong or believe there’s a cure for an incurable illness.

Denial through words manifests itself in the grammatical form of double negatives. When something is denied twice, it’s actually asserting itself. For example, someone asks another person if they took money that wasn’t theirs. So they reply, “No, not at all. I wasn’t the one who took the money”. The first part of the phrase negates the second.

Willful Ignorance

Nobody tries to ignore reality just for the sake of it. This defense mechanism sets in motion because recognizing a certain reality implies changes.  It questions the very foundations of who you are, the image you have of yourself, or even your place in society.

Willful ignorance protects you from that deep instability that comes from admitting a specific truth. In particular, we can observe this in taboo subjects, such as child abuse. Many times, a family refuses to believe a child who speaks up about being sexually abused by an uncle, cousin, etc. Namely, because acknowledging it would imply great family ruptures and eventual legal action.

Willful ignorance helps make reality more tolerable so your life doesn’t fall apart. However, denial is never fully successful; it covers up but doesn’t eliminate.

Willful ignorance can cause you more problems.

The Effects of Denial

The main problem with denial is that it doesn’t allow people to carry out the necessary changes when faced with problematic realities. In other words, your problems will still exist, whether you see them or not. Often, that unwillingness to fix them will only make them worse. Soon, they’ll become more unfixable.

Denial never achieves its goal. Because, sooner or later, reality imposes itself over your desires. Sometimes, that reality is serious enough to wreak havoc in the life of one or more people. In extreme cases, it can even become the starting point of a severe mental disorder.

Accepting a bitter or painful reality is never easy. It’s normal for you to need some time to be able to accept things. Furthermore, oftentimes you’ll need to overcome some resistance as well. You’ll also need to rely on your own abilities to do so. If you manage to accept the things in front of you, you’ll discover that difficult situations are opportunities to grow.

  • Freud, A., & Carcamo, C. E. (1961). El yo y los mecanismos de defensa (Vol. 3). Barcelona: Paidós.