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I usually hear people use the phrase "I don't/didn't want to believe it," and I've always been curious as to what it meant. Does it mean that the person is in denial of something? Or does it mean that the person does believe something but doesn't want to? How's it different from when people say "I don't believe it?"

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    Perhaps too scared to believe it?
    – Kris
    Dec 15, 2013 at 13:16

5 Answers 5

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Usually when you're faced with something that you think is impossible, but has happened, you come to believe it slowly, in stages. It's not just a matter of -poof!- it happens, and you believe it happened or is happening. The process goes something like:

  • I don't believe it. You must be making it up. Is this some kind of sick joke? Am I hallucinating? Where are the cameras?
  • I can't believe it. I am starting to think there's a chance this might be true, but overall I don't think so
  • I don't want to believe it. My logical side is starting to see that this is probably true, but my emotional side is not convinced yet. I'm willing to admit that this is something I probably should believe by now, and will eventually, but not yet.
  • I couldn't believe it. I believe it now, but not at first.

Of these, the "don't want to believe it" is unusual because it only applies to awful things, like a sudden death, and not to good ones like a lottery win. For good things someone might say "I don't dare believe it" instead.

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Consider this:

I had heard news that John had died but I didn't want to believe it.

In that scenario, I have heard a possibility that an acquaintance has died. Until I hear confirmation this could merely be a rumour and could be either true or false.

For as long as this remains unconfirmed I can choose not to believe the information.

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Your observation "does it mean that the person does believe in something but doesn't want to?" got me thinking and I came up with this scenario:

In his heart he believed that God existed . However, his rational mind insisted otherwise.

In that situation you might describe his internal conflict by saying: "He didn't want to believe it"
He believed in God despite his rationality and analysis of logic telling him differently.

But, usually when we hear the oft used expression: ... didn't want to believe... We understand it to indicate a moment of incredulity, usually an instinctive reaction on hearing some particularly traumatic or incredible news. A refusal to believe in the truth.

The Fastest Kid on the Block. The Marty Glickman Story
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There was plenty of suspicion that college games were being fixed, but I refused to believe it. I didn't want to believe it because I was having such a wonderful time making a name for myself doing these games.

Slash By Jason H. Jones
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I didn't want to believe it, though. I fought against it with every piece of myself that I could, but it didn't help. I knew that it was only my paranoia – my fear – but it just didn't make a difference.

Soldier Caged / Seducing the Mercenary
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Jonah gripped the arms of the chair to steady himself.
He had almost gotten a bunch of people killed?
He didn't want to believe it. He didn't want to believe anything this man had told him. But what if it was true?

This Time Around By Delisa Ansah
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Even though Keisha kept trying to convince me that I was already pregnant, I just had a mind of my own—either that or I didn't want to believe it.

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"I don't/didn't want to believe it," implies something so unpleasant that it is difficult to allow that such a thing could happen.

When I heard about the train derailing, I didn't want to believe it.

"I don't believe it" simply means something is so out of the person's every day experience that it is hard to believe.

I don't believe he just bought her a new car! He's usually so careful with money.

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It is basically like saying

No! It can't be.

upon hearing something even if it CAN be. You're (semi)-consciously ruling out the option for it being true. If your cat talks to you you might have a difficult time to accept that as reality. You might doubt your mental sanity rather than believing that that just happened. Anyway, the phrase does imply that the event DID occur and that you DO believe it now.

I didn't want to believe it and I didn't...

I didn't want to believe it and that was a good choice for it was a fiction...

Those two examples kind of destroy the idiom.

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