Why some people cannot accept reality, even when presented with facts

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

David H. Rosmarin, Ph.D., joins Lorenzo Norris, MD, to discuss how to think about the concept of denial and its role in the sociopolitical challenges of our society.

Dr. Rosmarin is a clinical psychologist and director of the spirituality and mental health program at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass. He also is an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, Boston.

Dr. Rosmarin has no disclosures. Dr. Norris has no disclosures.

Take-home points

  • Denial is defined as a cognitive and emotional process by which a person avoids facing aspects of reality, especially when it is difficult to assimilate the details of reality into one’s current thinking.
  • Arguably, denial is a coping or defense mechanism meant to address the tension that arises from trying to change an individual’s current way of thinking and understanding of reality.
  • Another form of denial is choosing to focus only on one’s perception of reality and struggling to see the other side of an argument. We can see this form of denial play out in COVID-19 pandemic denial and in certain political narratives.
  • Denial in its most potent form causes individuals to disconnect from any conversation around the salient topic, which can make denial even worse.


  • Denial can be adaptive in its role of protecting a person's psyche. When the midbrain and limbic system are activated, the frontal lobe needs time to process and integrate the information. For example, people will deny the presence of an event they regret or fear until they have enough emotional capacity to integrate new facts into their current model of reality.
  • Yet, denial can be harmful when there are “side effects.” The classic example of pathologic denial is an individual who has experienced trauma, and through continued denial of its impact and poor integration of the event, starts to experience somatic symptoms. Dr. Rosmarin says the problem with denial is that people who are experiencing denial are often the last to recognize their need for treatment or an intervention.
  • Dr. Rosmarin discusses how, with certain topics, we must value and preserve relationships over persuading certain social contacts, such as family and friends, to overcome their denial. Validating emotions and finding the validity in a person's beliefs and grievances can go a long way toward preserving relationships that are challenged by denial of certain facts.


Rosmarin DH et al. Lancet Psychiatry. 2021 Feb;8(2):92-3.

Hall C and Pick D. Hist Workshop J. 2017 Oct;84(1):1-23.

Miller BL. JAMA. 2020 Dec 8;324(22):2255-6.

Rosmarin DH. Spirituality, Religion and Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy: A Guide for Clinicians. New York: Guilford Press, 2018.

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Show notes by Jacqueline Posada, MD, associate producer of the Psychcast; assistant clinical professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at George Washington University, Washington; and staff physician at George Washington Medical Faculty Associates, also in Washington. Dr. Posada has no conflicts of interest.

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