Does the ostrich finally ‘dip its head into the sand’?
Sigmund Freud was the one who put into words and defined through his observations a psychological ‘defense mechanism’, as he called it, denial. Denial is largely a subconscious process. That is, you do not decide that ‘now I will be in denial’. However, there are studies that show that there is a conscious side to denial, where, that is, one can decide to be in this mental and intellectual state by ignoring the facts.
Denial occurs in most people and can be a normal and beneficial reaction. Among other things, it protects our mental self from the consequences of a drastic emotional change, or in other words, an ’emotional invasion’.
It offers time to someone who has just experienced for example a very unpleasant, threatening, or undesirable situation, to gradually adapt to the new conditions.
The language of psychology
On the other hand, living in the “land of denial” for a long time seems to be detrimental, as it distances one from reality, restricts, and prevents one from seeing the big picture more “clearly”.
This can deprive an individual, a group of individuals, and even entire societies or countries of the ability to manage an awkward situation or act as effectively as possible.
Actually, denial, as a psychological process, is the rejection-ignoring of a real situation or event, which is too stressful or painful to be immediately accepted by the person or those who experience and/or are affected by it.
Many people use denial in their daily lives to try to avoid painful or uncomfortable feelings and thoughts, thus postponing even the most effective action. For example, one can obviously abuse alcohol but simply denies that he has an alcohol problem. Instead, he claims that he has no major problems in his life and that everything is ‘fine’. At the same time, the problem can be obvious to those around.
Denial in the language of psychology is considered one of the most primitive – that is, one of the oldest and earliest – defense mechanisms, as it characterizes the first years of human childhood.
Sometimes denial can be experienced even in positively stressful situations for instance when someone goes through the exams they wanted so much but does not feel the intense joy they expected they would feel. You may be in denial of something that happens to you or to someone else.
Some Key Features
Some key features of denial, according to studies are the following.
‘Pretend it does not exist’: Here the denial prevents you from recognizing a stressful problem or a really difficult situation. For example, a fairly serious accident occurs and the injured person claims to be ‘fine’, ‘not affected at all by this experience’, and ‘does not need help’. He behaves as if the accident never happened.
‘It is not so serious … exaggerations!’: to underestimate an event or a situation and to deny its seriousness and possible consequences. For example, sinking deeper and deeper into debt, but doing nothing about it, considering that things are ‘not as serious as they seem’.
‘It happened but I am not to blame for anything’: Recognizing a difficult situation but denying any responsibility or attitude of responsibility in relation to it.
Usually, people are in denial when they feel particularly vulnerable or when their sense of control over a situation in their life is threatened, such as chronic or incurable diseases, depression or other mental health issues, financial problems, dependencies, work problems, conflicting or dysfunctional relationships, various traumatic events, periods of crisis (personal, social or other).
The psychological process
The psychological process of denial can sometimes be helpful and sometimes harmful. Denial can be helpful for a short period of time when you have experienced a painful or stressful situation giving you the opportunity to ‘digest’ the experience more gradually.
On the other hand, when denial becomes even a ‘way of life’ then things can get difficult. Such an ‘attitude’ can greatly reduce the choices a person could make in a timely and effective manner in the face of a truly difficult situation. For example, if he refuses to address a health problem then this problem can get worse over time, making it more difficult to deal with it more effectively. If he refuses to acknowledge his unfavorable financial issues, if he does not accept the seriousness of the consequences of harmful behavior or if it tolerates without a problem a dysfunctional relationship, then the denial is more harmful than helps the quality of health, relationships, and life of the person and those around, in general.
The phenomenon of denial does not need to be encountered and experienced only on an individual level. It is a mental function that one can encounter at the level of groups, societies, and even countries. Thus, this denial behavior has also become known as ‘ostrichism’. That is, refusing to take into account the facts or the realistic danger, thus temporarily avoiding painful and uncomfortable feelings or situations.
However, does the ostrich finally ‘dip its head into the sand’? Zoologists say no. This is a myth that probably comes from a phrase in a text of a Roman thinker called Pliny. It is said that the ostrich then ‘plunged its head into the sand’ to avoid the danger. But what really puts this high-necked animal in danger – other than running too fast or kicking its invader – is to lower its body and try to rest its long neck on the ground giving the impression that he has buried his head in the sand. Thus, it manages to become less visible. This in combination with the colors of its plumage makes it look more like a dune. Therefore, it reduces the chances of being located by the lion or hyena that hunts their prey in the area.