Special Notice: This post was originally published in The Infopreneur. Since it is no longer available there, I republish it here for your reading enjoyment.
[dinī′əl] Etymology: L, denegare, to negate
1. refusal or restriction of something requested, claimed, or needed, often causing physical or emotional deficiency.
2. an unconscious defense mechanism in which emotional conflict and anxiety are avoided by refusal to acknowledge those thoughts, feelings, desires, impulses, or facts that are consciously intolerable.
—Mosby’s Medical Dictionary, 8th edition. © 2009, Elsevier.
In my experience, I have found denial to be an excellent coping mechanism for surviving my own life and an extremely frustrating phenomenon to run up against in others. It serves a purpose – it protects us from truths we are not ready to face. Too often, though, we carry it too far and forget once we get past the trauma to go back and look more rationally at what we were avoiding.
Denial in Myself
As a child, my home life was fraught with emotional conflict. My response was pain, and then avoidance through withdrawal into my own world of books and imagination. Over time, I also bottled up my emotions so I would not have to look at them. As a result, I managed to get through my adolescence and college years, but under the cloud of depression. I knew I was depressed, and I knew it was related to pushing down my emotions, because my throat had a constant lump in it from keeping them corked up in my body. But to face the pain and the unexpressed emotions felt much scarier and more painful than the depression and bodily discomfort. My denial protected me from what I thought would be intolerable pain.
Although many people were concerned for me and tried to help me, breaking through my denial had nothing to do with them. I’ll tell you what forced me to my knees. The first time, it was a relationship in which I felt ambivalent about my partner. We came up to the question again and again, “Fish or cut bait?” The pain of being unable to commit to the relationship but also unable to let go of it forced me to take action. I finally started facing my bottled up emotions, letting them out in a safe environment and dealing with ancient hurts and neglected, gangrenous wounds. I had to clear out the garbage before I could even begin to address the current relationship issues. In the end, I recognized I was only hanging on for reasons of security and fear of being alone, and I ended things with my boyfriend.
The second time I broke through my own denial was when I was dating a man I was madly in love with. I couldn’t understand why he was so unreliable and would often fail to keep his commitments. When I found him one night passed out and surrounded by beer bottles, the light dawned. He had a drinking problem! I went on to try to “fix him” in every conceivable way, until I realized I was beating my head against the wall. I finally had the breakthrough – in focusing on him, I had been distracted from the real problem – looking at myself. This led to tremendous internal work to uncover the source of my need to control others and to begin to take true personal responsibility for myself, my thoughts, feelings, and actions.
Denial in Others
I’ve run into denial in others in many forms and find it frustrating, irrational, and sometimes outrageous. It boggles my mind when a person stares me in the eyes and basically tells a lie, yet really thinks he or she is telling the truth. But now, when I run into irrationality and, frankly, insanity, I can recognize it. I know I’ve run into a deep-seated survival skill still essential to this person’s ability to function. Challenging it leads to arguments and bad feeling. Take the example of my boyfriend who drank. He’d tell me he’d stop, and he’d mean it at the time, but it was an unconscious lie. Because drinking was covering up some deep intolerable pain for him. Turning to alcohol was actually a solution that had become another problem.
So I’ve learned my lesson. I no longer beat my head against the wall, trying to convince anyone in denial of the obvious realities clearly visible to anyone who really looked. These days, I let them be. But I protect myself, too. Denying reality can negatively affect relationships, and I prefer honesty and transparency. I prefer admitting my weaknesses so I can work on them and acknowledging my strengths. I’ve moved away from close relationships with people too far into their denial, and even let some friendships go completely.
Suggestions for Dealing with Denial
- Are you feeling a great deal of pain? Or perhaps deep in depression (which for me was caused by suppression of feelings)?
- Are you ready to try something different than you’ve always done? Can you identify what you are avoiding?
- List what you’ve tried already and brainstorm new methods for doing something different.
- Consider a radical step for yourself, something you have resistance to. For example, making an appointment with a therapist, signing up for a self-help workshop, trying a meditation center, or attending a 12-step meeting as an experiment.
- First of all, know that you have absolutely no control over someone else’s defense mechanisms.
- Rather than trying logic with the person, see what happens when you stop challenging and simply let things go, let them be. They’ll stick with their behavior no matter what you do or say, and they’re more likely to actually hear themselves (and their lack of rationality), if you stop arguing with them.
- Instead of engaging with the person’s denial, turn your attention to healthier pursuits. With the extra time, go to the gym, practice your craft, pursue your passions.
- Modeling healthy behavior is the best action you can take to inspire others in denial.
What is your experience with denial? Have you had your own breakthroughs? How have you managed it in others? I’d love to hear your thoughts.