DENY DENIAL: Your most primitive survival skill can also be fatal

At most of my survival courses, I ask the group if anyone has ever been in a life-or-death survival scenario. From hunkering down in fox holes fighting terrorists in the Middle East to being trapped in a vehicle during a lake effect snowstorm in Chicago, I’ve heard all kinds of stories over the years. I have long been enamored with the details of survival scenarios as told by the survivors themselves. I always come away with having learned something very interesting about the human psyche and even myself.

On one such occasion an older gentleman from Colorado (who will remain anonymous) recounted his experience of getting lost one evening after a deer hunt. He had shot and wounded a big buck just before sunset. With adrenaline still pumping through his veins, the zeal of locating his trophy before nightfall clouded the common sense decision to come back and track in the morning. After about an hour and a half of hiking through miles of 10-foot-high scrub brush he ultimately lost the blood trail. But that wasn’t the only thing lost. He too had become disoriented and confused.

The darkening shadows of the setting sun against unfamiliar terrain made everything look different in every direction. Before long, it was nearly pitch black. He had no flashlight, no cell service, no shelter, no water – nothing but his gun and the clothes on his back.

As I probed for more details about the experience, he reluctantly confessed that he knew he was lost long before he admitted it out loud to himself.

He stated, “I remember thinking there was going to be something I recognized around the next corner. Fifty corners later I still hadn’t seen anything familiar.”

To make a long story short, he spent the night in the woods (nearly freezing to death) and eventually hitched a ride back to town after flagging down a truck on a remote mountain road the next evening. He was very lucky indeed. This experience is what drove him to seek out survival training.

“Most men would rather deny a hard truth than face it.” – George R.R. Martin

What can we learn from this and so many similar survival experiences? The lesson is simple: Don’t let denial trump common sense.

Denial is one of the few survival skills we are born with. Though for many it has been mastered with years of practice, no one teaches us how to deny evident truths. One day, this natural survival skill kicks in, and we just start denying things to somehow protect ourselves. It’s a natural human instinct for coping with stress, pain, emotions, fear, anxiety and grief. But even though our instincts mean well, we can’t always be run by instinct alone. We must decide if these innate survival instincts really have our best interest in mind.

The power of denial

Denial is a very powerful adversary, sneaking in under the radar. It’s human nature to struggle with denial during difficult or stressful circumstances. It is a tool our brain uses to deflect inevitable truths – but almost always, especially in life or death survival scenarios, those truths are coming whether we deny them or not.

Using the deer hunting example above, no matter how much he tried to deny the fact that he was lost, it had no self-preservation effect whatsoever. In fact, it only made his circumstance worse.


I was speaking with a woman several years ago who had survived a near fatal bear attack. She told me how as she was watching the bear charge toward her, she found herself wondering what it was behind her that the bear was mad at. This was simply her mind denying cold hard facts because of its inability to face the truth. Of course the bear wasn’t mad at anything behind her. It was charging her. Denial prevented her from taking actions that could have possibly made the attack less severe. Denying the clear and evident truth nearly cost this woman her life. Denial is a powerful (and tricky) emotion.

Denial and survival

Sometimes facing the truth of your predicament is painful. It can be embarrassing and is oftentimes a blow to the ego. However, saving face is never more important than saving your life.

During my public speaking engagements I’ll often ask people if they’ve prepared a Bug Out Bag just in case a disaster strikes their home. Many answer no. The most popular response to my immediate question of “why?” is because “they don’t feel it will ever happen to them.” This is a simple example of how denial can get people in trouble. They are denying the fact that a sudden and unexpected disaster can strike their immediate area at any given moment without warning. It happens to people all over the world all the time. No one is exempt. Common sense (and statistical evidence) says that it is in fact more likely than many realize. There can be a fine line between denial and laziness.

Deny denial a stronghold

Sometimes, especially in a life-threatening survival scenario (and in life), you have to deny denial the power to control your actions. It’s never easy, but it’s always better for you.

The cause of our denial is typically very obvious (i.e. a bear is charging me or alcoholism). Recognizing and stopping denial before it’s too late is the tricky part.

“Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.” – Mark Twain

Spotting denial requires us to pay very close attention to ourselves. We love to analyze and criticize others but rarely look in the mirror. Three signs of denial to look for when taking inventory of your thoughts are: 1) Avoiding an issue or a problem, 2) Minimizing the consequences of a decision or event and 3) Refusing to accept truthful facts. Almost all cases of denial that exacerbate a survival scenario involve rationalizations around one of those areas.

The best way to stave off denial is to confront unfortunate and stressful truths as quickly as possible. Become a responsible owner of your own decisions – good or bad. Ignoring or putting off bad news only makes the consequences worse. Practice recognizing and confronting denial now so that it doesn’t catch you by surprise when survival is at stake.

Remember, it’s not IF but WHEN.

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