The Four Denials Of Responsibility

Four types of denial of responsibility are denial of fact, impact, accountability and hope.  This brief article describes how to recognize and respond to them.

If you’ve ever been significantly mistreated by someone (and who hasn’t?) you may decide at some point to confront that person. This can be an important step to take in order to reclaim the sense of personal power you may have felt you lost through their actions. Examples can range from a situation as serious as confronting a parent who abused you as a child to letting a co-worker know something they said bothered you. However, in any such confrontation it’s important that you not set yourself up for further damage to your self-esteem depending on how the other person responds. This is where knowing about the “four denials of responsibility” can be very useful.

These four denials are typical responses that you may get from someone you confront for past inappropriate behavior. They are common barriers that prevent people from fully accepting responsibility for their actions. I think I remember first coming upon this concept in the book “The Courage To Heal” by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis. If you are not prepared for these denials you may feel frustrated rather than relieved after your confrontation.

(1) The first denial is the “denial of fact”. This is the person’s refusal to acknowledge that an inappropriate act even occurred. He or she is likely to say such things as “it never happened, you’re wrong, your allegation is not true.” So the first level of acceptance is for the person to acknowledge that the problem is a real one.

(2) The second denial is “denial of impact”. This is the attempt by the person you confront to minimize the importance of the event you are bringing to their attention. At this stage a person is likely to make statements such as “it’s no big deal”, “don’t be so sensitive”, “you’re making a mountain out of a molehill.” These are all examples of how a person may downplay the importance of the problem he or she caused. The second level of acceptance is for the person to admit that the problem or infraction not only exists but that it is serious.

(3) The third denial is “denial of accountability”. This is an attempt to avoid responsibility for a misdeed through some sort of explanation that the circumstance was somehow out of the person’s control. “I was stressed out”, “I had too much to drink”, “I was in a bad mood” are all examples of attempts to deny responsibility for the problem. Sometimes the person will even try to say you brought the damage on yourself, i.e. “You made me hit you”.  The third level of acceptance is for the person to assume full responsibility for the inappropriate action.

(4) The last type of denial is what I call “denial of hope.” It takes the form of refusing to acknowledge the willingness to do the work to improve the situation. “That was in the past so there’s no point in bringing it up”, “that’s just the way I am”, “nobody’s perfect” are all examples of how a person can try to duck responsibility for making things better.  The fourth level of acceptance is for the person to actively demonstrate remorse and a desire to heal through words and actions.

To summarize, denial of fact says that the offense in question never happened, denial of impact trivializes the consequences of the inappropriate behavior, denial of responsibility attempts to justify or excuse the behavior, and denial of hope shows that the person is unwilling to take active steps to make things better.

Put this all together and you are likely to hear some version of the following four denials from a person you confront: “It didn’t happen like that, it’s no big deal anyway, it wasn’t even my fault and besides there’s nothing that can be done about it.

By contrast, a person taking full responsibility says some version of these words: “I admit the event happened. I agree it was a big deal with serious consequences. No matter what extenuating circumstances were going on at the time, I bear ultimate responsibility for my behavior. Regardless of how bad or how long ago it was, there are steps I am willing to take to help you heal.

It’s easy to see that there are a lot of ways to engage in denial but only one way to fully accept responsibility. There are many ways to get it wrong, but only one way to really get it right. No wonder so many people struggle with accepting full accountability for the infractions they have committed against others.  It takes a lot of emotional strength to do the work.

The key when confronting someone is for you is to be clear in your mind that these four denials are not debate points. You are taking a great risk if it is crucial to your well-being for the person you confront to admit “it happened, it’s a big deal, I accept responsibility for it and I want to make it better”. If you are depending on this outcome you  may be setting yourself up for further pain. It's often wiser to settle these issues in your own mind before bringing it up for discussion.  Then if you receive one or more of these four denials of responsibility you may not like it but you won't be harmed.

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Bill Herring LCSW is a long-time therapist in Atlanta.  In addition to his general adult practice for individuls and couples he is expert in the field of problematic sexual behavior and recipient of the 2019 Carnes Award presented by the Society for the Advancement of Sexual Health.