The Truth About Denial

“How ‘bout a shot of truth in that denial cocktail?” – Jennifer Salaiz

 

Denial has a bad rap.

The truth is, we need denial sometimes.

It protects our minds and bodies against information that is too overwhelming to process all at once.

HideDenial is what causes that feeling of being lost in a giant cotton ball after you’ve received shocking news. It gives your brain some time to work through new information and gain perspective on it.

Denial can last for a short time or a fairly lengthy period. When my late partner, Ruth, was diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer, it took about a year for us to completely come out of our denial that the disease would take her life.

After her first course of chemotherapy, Ruth’s cancer went into remission. When it reappeared at the end of that first year, we finally acknowledged that she would never be cured.

But that year of gentle denial was helpful for us. It gave us hope and allowed us to develop practices and support systems that would help us further down the road when things really got tough.

When denial gets in the way

But what would have happened if we had persisted in our denial?

We would have missed out on the richness that life took on when we realized that hers was going to end soon.

And I would have been completely blindsided and traumatized by her death if I hadn’t accepted that it was going to happen.

Denial is one of the many tools we employ to keep ourselves as together as possible.

When something arises that threatens to pull us apart and away from the normal we once knew, we quickly put on the brakes.
But, while possibly helpful in the short term, denial only gets in the way of being able to problem-solve and utilize other means to bounce back from adversity.

I worked with a client who came to me for therapy because she was feeling very angry toward her sister.

My client, Mary, thought her sister was enabling her adult-age son, Mary’s nephew, to continue his anti-social ways by bailing him out of jail, fixing his financial problems, and allowing him to stay in her home.

The sister’s codependent behavior was driving Mary crazy.

A few sessions later, as she was telling me more of her frustrations about the situation, she said that she had written letters to her nephew’s probation officer.

However, she had sent the letters as though they were coming from her nephew when, in fact, they were written by Mary.

“I just don’t want him to get into more trouble by not checking in with his probation officer,” she said.

When I gently reflected her own enabling behaviors, Mary was shocked.

And she never returned to therapy.

It was easier for her to stay in her denial story that her sister was the problem, rather than admitting she was also adding to the situation in a negative way.

Denying a problem exists can have lethal consequences, too. One day as I sat in a restaurant, I saw an acquaintance walk by. She had a huge lump on her neck. Later I found out that she had noticed the lump over a year ago, but decided it wasn’t anything to worry about so never went to the doctor.

A few months after I saw her in the restaurant she died from advanced lymphoma.

Denial is okay. Until it’s not.

You know denial.

You’ve seen it in yourself and others.

The person who thinks the bank isn’t really serious about foreclosing on his house.

Your co-worker who thinks a bottle of wine with dinner every night isn’t a problem, even though she keeps getting in trouble for coming in late.

That voice inside your head that says, “It’s okay to buy this iPad with my credit card. I’ll pay the minimum due this month and get caught up again next month.”

Denial is okay.

Until it’s not.

While short-term denial gives you time to adjust to your current setback, long-term denial only digs you a deeper hole.

And denial doesn’t only apply to the big crises in our lives. Do any of these situations that we deny sound familiar to you?

  • I know exercise is good for me but I don’t have time right now. I’ll start next month.
  • Yes, my desk is messy, but I only missed one bill payment in the last month. That’s not too bad.
  • I should probably talk to my husband about my feelings of loneliness because he always works so late. But I don’t want to stress him out even more than he already is.
  • My cholesterol is high, but it’s genetic. It’s okay if I eat a little red meat twice per week.
From run-of-the-mill issues to the serious storms in our lives, denial can easily lull us into inactivity which only magnifies the problem.

So the first step away from denial and toward acceptance is to call a spade a spade. Truly see what is in front of you:

  • You will soon be in insurmountable debt if you don’t stop running up your credit card.
  • The bank does have a right to take your home if you aren’t paying the mortgage.
  • Drinking so much that you are late for work every day is a problem.
  • Your spouse’s complaints and threats to leave really do mean there is trouble in your relationship.
  • The phone calls you’ve been receiving from your child’s school means that he really is having behavioral issues.

But how can you determine whether you’re in denial or not?

Four ideas for coming out of denial

  1. Pay attention to what your friends are telling you.
Are they expressing concerns about your behavior or a situation in your life?

Have you heard any comments said “jokingly”, such as:

  • “Wow, you really like to keep that credit card busy, don’t you?”
  • “Having a little food with your wine again?”
  • “Wait. Did I hear you two actually say something nice to each other?”
People will often hesitate to say something directly about your denial, but they may be giving you plenty of clues if you’re actually listening.
  1. Notice if you’re having the same problem over and over.

What’s that old definition of insanity? Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

If you keep running into the same problem all the time, stop!

Look around.

Are you so deep into denial that you don’t see that you’re doing the same thing repeatedly that gets you into trouble?

  1. If you are in the middle of a crisis, ask a trusted friend or family member if they think you’re denying any part of it.
It can be very difficult to get an accurate picture of your circumstances when one of life’s storms is raging all around you.

Use a friend as a mirror and ask them to reflect back to you how you’re doing. Ask them to be very honest and to point out any areas of reality that you might be missing.

  1. Use your imagination.

Imagine that your friend is in your current situation.

Notice how she is behaving.

Is she in denial about the problem?

 

Now it’s your turn to ‘fess up. When have you caught yourself in a serious case of denial?

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About Bobbi Emel

Psychotherapist Bobbi Emel specializes in helping people face life's significant challenges and regain their resiliency. Download her free ebook, Bounce Back! 5 keys to survive and thrive through life's ups and downs. You can find her blog and follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

Comments

  1. It takes a big man to acknowledge his/her mistakes. Denial is that sort of thing. I’m not sure how easy it is to follow the steps provided here, but I’m sure that’s better than nothing and might definitely help out some people.

    One thing I know that wouldn’t apply to me is paying too much attention to what my family has to say. I know it sounds rough, but through all this time I’ve learned how biased they are towards me and they can’t help it — so friends is usually my best bet.

    Good post!

  2. That’s interesting to realize that initial denial can actually be beneficial and can give you some time to process the shock and determine a new direction.

    I think some of my biggest issues with denial have been the times that I did not realize for a long time that I was in denial. I think that is one of the insidious aspects of denial – those times when you are so sure of your perspective and later realize that you were totally blindsided.

    • Yes, Patti, that is one of the tough parts of denial. You don’t realize you’re in it because denial blinds you to seeing that you’re in denial!

  3. Yes I agree, when things are hard it’s tempting to deny the reality, but it doesn’t get you anywhere to do so.

    The sooner you stop denying and confront it the sooner you can take steps out of it.

    -Ben

  4. Bobbi,

    Thank you for sharing your story. Your client and then friend were both shocking stories. I think it comes down to learning balance while water skiing. You must be in rhythm with the waves that life throws you and yet balance out the yin and yang of your reactions to those waves while staying afloat so you don’t go under.

    A hard skill to learn but one we all must accomplish to reach the shore.

  5. Great post here, Bobbi. Denial can hold us back from facing the truth. I was in denial about my children’s drug use. I didn’t want to face it, because it felt overwhelming and I knew I didn’t have the answers. Reaching out for help is what changed my thinking and made me realize that being in denial didn’t serve anyone well. I remember my mom used to say, “Face reality.” I have experienced now how true that statement really is.

    • Great example, Cathy, although I’m sure it was a painful one for you. I like your statement that “being in denial didn’t serve anyone well.” That’s a great lesson for all of us.

  6. That is so interesting, I have never thought about it that way. Makes total sense though. I like that idea of reflecting with a friend, that can be an eye opening experience.

  7. Hi Bobbi,

    Interesting topic, and also interesting points of view on denial. Denial is a natural defense mechanism that has thus far survived evolution. I think the jury is still out on its value, though. We all go through stages when faced with trauma or loss, and denial is usually the first regardless of the model you adhere to. Perhaps this is a way to prevent our being flooded on the conscious level while we try and make sense of the situation on the unconscious levels? Regardless, I have found both for myself, and for my clients, that the quicker we can make sense of the situation and accept reality for what it is, the more healthy and happy we can be. Prolonged denial simply prolongs the suffering IMO.

    Chris

  8. Realizing something big can be too much to bare.
    Uncovering lesser truths helps equip us to take the final big step.
    A problem arises when we taken steps and believed the situation to be resolved, then bury our heads in the sand.
    That’s when we go into shock when the inevitable happens.
    I’ll admit to failing to recognize that I haven’t followed through and have suffered the consequences.

  9. I couldn’t even begin to list all the times I’ve lived in self-denial. It used to come as natural to me as breathing.

    But I can certainly confirm that nothing ever improved until I stopped. Until I woke up and started facing some cold hard truths about who I was, what I was doing, and where I was heading . . . among many others.

    I don’t disagree that denial can sometimes be of help in the short-term (or longer), but in the end, denial always needs to be cut down. You will never move forward until you do.

    Cheers!

  10. For a long time I was in a denial that my diet was ok. I was gradually gaining weight and put on a pretty good sized spare tire. I finally decided to make some diet changes and start exercising. I’m sure glad I did, I feel much better now that I’ve shed some of the excess weight.

    • Hi Eric, thanks for sharing your story! Denial about health is a _really_ easy one to get caught up in, that’s for sure! I’m so glad you’re on your way to a healthy lifestyle.

  11. Thank you for your incredible personal story, Bobbi. Denial is indeed a double-edged blade at times.

    I think for a very long time my ego was enabling my denial when it came to self-reflection. I never thought I needed to change or improve as a person. Verbal abuse and making others feel terrible was just natural for me earlier on because others enabled that sort of behavior, encouraged it even.

    Then as I got older and saw clues pointing towards my flaws, I blocked it out and told myself it’s not real. I blamed others’ faults instead. Then one day I was awaken and transcended. I became a believer of constant self-reflection.

    Thank you again, Bobbi.

  12. It was denial that kept me in the grips of alcoholism for so many years. So I am all too aware of the dangers of denial. One of the best tools I have learnt in recovery is to deal with issues as they arise and not to just hope they will disappear!

  13. Bobbi, enjoyed this post. I especially connected with #2, having the same problem over and over again. I spent a good four years denying that the industry my career had landed me in was totally wrong for me, because the thought of “backtracking” and giving up the years of experience I’d gained (as a young professional, 4 years of relevant experience was huge for my resume) sounded like a pretty terrible idea. After one particularly troublesome work-related frustration went down, my mom reminded me again that she’d never felt this was a good field for me, and finally, her message broke through my denial. I’ve been making adjustments and changes since, have a new career plan, and am happier than ever. Great topic!

    • Cassie, this is a really good example of how we build onto our denial by thinking we have more in the game than we really do. In your story, I think it was really natural for you not to want to feel like you had “backtracked” in any way, but the fear of backtracking just added to your denial process. Good for you for listening to your mom and making some positive changes!

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