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Keywords:

  • acceptance;
  • chronic illness;
  • denial;
  • identity;
  • literature review;
  • nursing;
  • theoretical issues

Aim.  This paper reports an exploration of the terms acceptance and denial by exploring the literature, with the aim of understanding the implications of using these concepts to categorize people's responses to living with chronic illness.

Background.  People learning to live with a chronic illness or condition may be judged and labelled by others as being in denial, particularly when they do not adhere to prescribed treatment regimes.

Method.  A literature search for the period between 1989 and 2003 was conducted using the electronic databases Medline, CINAHL, PSYCArticles, Health Source Nursing/Academic Edition, Academic Search Elite and Sociological Abstracts. Key terms used were ‘acceptance and denial’ and variations of such themes as ‘chronic illness’, ‘disability’, ‘adjustment’, ‘illness discourse’, ‘medical discourse’, ‘illness experience’, ‘labelling’, ‘self’ and ‘identity’.

Discussion.  The theoretical background of the common constructs ‘acceptance and denial’ are discussed using the psychoanalytic theories of Freud and Kubler-Ross's work on death and dying. Healthcare professionals and lay people commonly refer to the terms acceptance and denial when describing a person's response to chronic illness. Those whose understanding of the illness experience relies on the acceptance–denial framework may not listen when people with chronic illness attempt to tell their own unique story of how they have experienced life with illness. Instead, their listening antennae may be focused on fitting aspects of the experience with stages of adjustment. When others use labels of acceptance and denial, people who are learning to live with a chronic illness may internalize these labels as reflections of the self. This may be most likely when the person using the label is perceived to have authority, such as a healthcare professional. The internalization of negative information associated with these labels may obstruct the reshaping of self-identity that is fundamental when making a transition to living well with chronic illness.

Conclusion.  Healthcare professionals are urged to challenge the stage model of adjustment as a way of understanding the response to illness and to listen instead to the stories people tell. They are encouraged to privilege the person's experience as the basis for developing a sensitive, client-focussed response that takes into account the wider social context of people's lives as well as the medical aspects.