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.
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.
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.
Four ideas for coming out of denial
- Pay attention to what your friends are telling you.
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?”
- Notice if you’re having the same problem over and over.
If you keep running into the same problem all the time, stop!
Are you so deep into denial that you don’t see that you’re doing the same thing repeatedly that gets you into trouble?
- 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.
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.
- Use your imagination.
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?