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Shock, Disbelief, & Denial

Denial gets a bad name.


There are two forms of denial:

1) Knowingly deceiving others--realizing something is true and telling others it didn’t happen.

2) Deceiving yourself--sincerely believing something that is not actually true.


It isn’t unusual for others to know when a person is denying something. But it is very difficult to discern which kind of denial is happening inside another person’s head. Both kinds of denial usually appear to outsiders as conscious (or at least partly-conscious) deception. So all denial gets a bad name, a moral stain. Those affected by sibling sexual trauma often do have to deal with a family member’s deceptive denial.


This page, however, is focused on self-denial. It is unintentional and unconscious. Self-denial follows after shock, as sure as thunder follows lightning. When a family is rocked by sibling sexual trauma, shock is everywhere. The first time your sibling touches you sexually. A parent who walks in on an unthinkable scene. The first time you remember what happened and understand what it was. The first time the words leave your mouth. The first time a parent hears them. The first time you realize your parents know what you did. Shock--unexpected, intense fear--sends the brain instantly into fight, flight, or freeze mode. Initial reactions tend to be felt physically, before the brain has time to process anything.


Sibling sexual trauma is so unthinkable that most people don’t have enough awareness to even be afraid of it. It carries a shame that feels every bit as threatening as physical death. Your self, your worldview, your life, will never be the same. It is too much for any person to take in all at once. That’s where denial steps in.


Denial acts as a shock absorber for the brain. The stages of grief can come in any order, except for one. Denial always comes first. The stage of denial that follows a major life shock might look like a step backward, but it is necessary. It is like a gatekeeper that blocks the full impact of the trauma from hitting all at once, allowing it through in chunks that are a bit more manageable, less overwhelming.


From the inside, this kind of denial can feel like:

  • Disbelief

  • Numbness

  • Feeling as if you are going through the motions of life but are not really there

  • Feeling like you are no longer yourself

  • Obsession with putting the pieces together: How could this be true? How could this have happened?

  • Doubting your own eyes, ears, competence, thoughts, intelligence

  • Wondering if you are in a dream or if what happened was a dream

  • Wondering, in all seriousness, if you are crazy or hallucinating

  • Tunnel vision--inability to see or plan for anything beyond the present hour or day or place

  • Strong feeling that “this should not be happening”

  • Feeling you have gone off track, that you can still somehow go back to what life “should” be

  • Gaps in memory or trouble remembering things

  • Dissociation


From the outside, it can look like a person going through denial is:

  • Living in their old world instead of the new reality

  • Too focused on getting back to normal, or to appearing normal

  • Irrationally refusing to face reality

  • Pretending the trauma never happened

  • Protecting the person who did the harm

  • Refusing to adjust to what they have learned or experienced

  • Emotionally “cold”; not reacting in an emotionally appropriate way

  • Being emotionally “strong”


Denial slowly subsides as reality sinks in and a person has a chance to move on to other tasks in the grieving process. There is no timeline for any of this. When one shock is followed by another, and another, and another, there may not be a chance to move beyond denial. This is a common response in children who are being repeatedly sexually violated. This is one reason many survivors do not even remember what happened until years later.


Denial is common among all family members when sibling sexual trauma is revealed. All are dealing with each other’s reactions, and possibly also secondary traumas that arise from legal intervention and disclosure. There is a danger that parents who are going through a stage of denial will not be able to fully understand the risks and needs of their children. Parents are often forced to make decisions very early on, before there is any chance for reality to sink in.


In dealing with clients, family members, even yourself, remember that a period of denial is normal and necessary. It is not a sign of mental or moral weakness. It does not mean that acceptance will never come. It is simply a normal human response to a very abnormal situation. Accepting this and helping close family members understand this can help everyone move on to the next steps of healing, and to avoid getting stuck in unhealthy long-term denial. At the same time, outsiders who are less affected by denial may need to intervene if a parent’s or caretaker’s denial is putting a child in danger.​​

This video demonstrates how easily our own brains can deceive us, how we can

deny something as innocent as the sound our ears are hearing. When the human

brain is trying to process input that appears to be conflicting, it is forced to initially

choose one over the other–whether the sight of speech that doesn’t match the sound, or the news that someone we cherish has done something very bad.

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