We’ve all probably experienced denial in some form or another during our lives. Maybe we’ve seen it in others, or maybe we’ve been ‘guilty’ of it ourselves, but whatever our experiences, most of us would agree it’s far from uncommon – and it takes on a myriad of forms.
Denial is ignoring that lump in the breast or developing mole on the arm, and pretending it’s nothing to worry about.
It’s throwing money at a lost cause in the misguided hope that you can recover a bad situation. Maybe it’s that ‘one last bet’ to get back what you’ve lost at the bookmakers, or maybe it’s the failing business that you keep pumping money into in the belief that tomorrow will be different.
It’s staying in a terrible and emotionally (and possibly physically) destructive relationship because you know that if you get one last chance, you’ll be able to change the narrative and get back to ‘how it was at the beginning’.
It’s refusing to open bank and credit card statements on the basis of what you can’t see can’t possibly harm you, or believing you can quit drinking any time you want, even though you’ve begun to think that pouring yourself a vodka at 10am is no biggie.
It’s refusing to own your mistakes or transgressions, even when the evidence against you is overwhelming.
And it’s very definitely refusing to get help because you can still function okay even though deep down you know you have an addiction, debilitating dependency, or an inclination to abusive behaviour or violent mood swings.
Denial is the defence mechanism that gives you the ability to avoid processing, acknowledging, or owning bad or destructive behaviours – and it’s extraordinarily powerful because it enables you to legitimise those negative actions, beliefs and decisions. It also prevents you from facing pain that sometimes you don’t even know you are carrying.
Denial becomes an apologist for self-reward, self-approval, and self-advancement. Even if, ultimately, that comes at the expense of others or, more often than not, the self.
What is denial?
Denial comes in layers, you could say three categories:
- Conscious denial – this is the blind rejection, even in the face or overwhelming evidence to the contrary, of responsibility. It’s the equivalent of being caught red-handed with your hand in the cookie jar and insisting you never intended taking one.
- Acceptance refusal: At your core you know something is wrong, but you create a narrative that legitimises it. Yes, you know you’re drinking is getting out of hand, but your life is stressful, the booze helps to take the edge off, you can cope better, you feel better about yourself, and you keep adding these stories to your internal narrative in order to validate your decision to pour another Jack Daniel’s.
- Deep-rooted subconscious denial: This is denial so deep that that’s it exists purely in the subconscious, rooting you in a world where ‘you don’t know what you don’t know. This state is usually reached when you have experienced something so painful and traumatic that you don’t even recognise it for what it is.
A good way to define this is through the question: Does a fish know it’s wet? This is a state of genuine psychological denial that is not deliberately manufactured.
We may deny trying to steal a cookie because we actively want to avoid the shame of being labelled a thief, or we wish to preserve someone else’s (often misguided) perception of who we really are. (Or perhaps we just want to convince ourselves that we’re not the sort of person who steals.)
But deep-rooted unconscious denial is an unthinking defence mechanism that enables us to ignore an unacceptable truth or emotion by not allowing it into consciousness.
What this means, ultimately, is that we don’t know what we don’t even know. Or, to put it a better way, perhaps, we don’t know what we do know really, even when it’s as plain as day to everyone else.
So, what’s is the big deal about denial?
Denial is a problem for all sorts of reasons. As a temporary coping mechanism to deal with unbearable pain, it becomes a way of kicking the emotional can down the road until it becomes the emotional snowball that just gets bigger and bigger until one day it flattens you.
If you think about it, every problem was once a solution. In the example of the alcoholic drinker, that first vodka or beer was the solution to another problem – temporary relief from social anxiety, a stressful day at work, an argument with a partner or a tough financial situation.
Then, eventually, the drinking became the problem.
As Jung once said: “Perhaps the only pain that can be avoided is the pain that comes with trying to avoid pain.”
And coming out of denial around the drinking is the only way to learn to face life and reality and all it’s other issues without the terrible pain of potential alcoholism too.
Denial is the creation of greater pain than we’re trying to avoid
In the end, we can either face our pain, or we can spend years drowning ourselves in bad relationships, workaholism, alcohol, food addiction, or worse, in an attempt to avoid pain.
But – truth bomb alert – we’re only going to have to deal with it further down the line anyway. That is an inescapable truth. One day, your conscious mind will find the key to that locked box of denial and all those problems that denial seemed to solve for you will gush from it.
The attraction of denial is understandable – who in their right mind wants to feel pain so great that it floors us? And our subconscious, whose only job is to protect us, also understands this. So, it obscures that pain behind an iron curtain.
When trauma has been so great, complex, severe or sustained the subconscious mind will create extremely powerful denial based defences such as amnesia and, in even more extreme cases of intense cases of heartbreaking suffering, Dissoassiative Identity Disorder (formerly known as Multiple Personality Disorder), where the psyche is split into multiple, distinct personalities (also called ‘alters’) which are created to ‘switch’ and ‘take over’, the various identities control an individuals behaviour at different times. DID is where the trauma has been so great that the individuals system has been unable to integrate various aspects of identity, memory, and consciousness into a single multidimensional self.
The psychological protection of extreme denial comes from years of the individuals system finding creative ways, often in horrififc circumstances, to secure an intrinsic need for emotional survival.
But denial also becomes an enabler for other, unhealthy realities – such as unconsciously looking for and staying with abusers or seeking out those who facilitate the behaviours and beliefs that play to and reinforce our own narrative (other addicts, for example). Because when we are in psychological denial we tend to ‘seek the teeth that bit us’.
If you want to move towards emotional health then it is vital to come out of denial, which requires us to face the root problems that we’re trying to deny – which is why healing can be so daunting, difficult, and harrowing for trauma survivors. And exactly why it’s so important not to do it alone and to take your time.
Taking others out of denial
Those battling with a problem that triggers denial aren’t the only ones affected by it. Those in relationships with people who are in a state of denial also often find themselves facing their own denial.
These are the people who believe that if their friend or partner can just resolve their problems, life will be perfect – instead of looking at their own emotional health and questioning why they are in a relationship that is affects them so negatively. A good example here is the alcoholic and the para-alcoholic or the narcissist and the overly empathic codependent.
Denial is insidious and multi-layered and it generates its own by-product: dysfunction.
Trying to take someone out of denial too early or too quickly is fraught with risks (like ripping a blanket off someone that is freezing cold) – and it’s important to understand that the psychological response to deny is part of our internal protection.
If we remove that protection too soon, we risk exposing issues that may be utterly overwhelming, which is why therapists will do that slowly unless it’s a life or death addiction situation.
Coming out of denial
It’s only through defeat, exemplified by temporary surrender, that you can build a healthy future on the solid foundations of reality and not the shifting sands of fantasy and avoidance.
And while it may be difficult to see the rational, healthy future that we want to create for ourselves when we are pinned in the depths of despair and denial, it serves us well to remember that the human condition is hardwired for survival (and also healing, with the right support)
We are never beaten unless we choose to be beaten, and no matter the scale of the problem or the power of the denial that consequently enslaves us, the mind is always capable of the strength required to recover and to be restored.
It just needs us to find the right people, and the right environment, to do that work safely and honestly, one day at a time.