Living in Denial

Photo by Jinx!   Graphics by Randi Fine


Living In Denial

Written by Randi Fine

Excepted from May 30, 2014 show on A Fine Time for Healing, Living In Denial

I’m not sure when it began or how it evolved, but we now live in a society that supports denial and blame rather than acceptance and accountability. James Quinn, a senior director of strategic planning for a major university summed it up well in an article entitled, The Great American Empire – Decline, Decay, Denial, Delusion & Despair which was published on the online magazine The Market Oracle. This is what Mr. Quinn said.

 “The majority of Americans seem OK with just waddling through life, accepting the lies and misinformation blasted from the boob tube and their various iGadgets by their owners, gorging themselves to death on Twinkies and Cheetos, paying 15% interest on their $10,000 rolling credit card balance, and growing ever more dependent on the welfare/warfare state to provide and protect them from accepting personal responsibility for their lives.”

I am not a sociologist, political activist, or psychiatrist, but I am a great observer of human behavior. And what I have frustratingly observed, time and time again, is that many people do not live emotionally healthy lives. That observation never fails to surprise me given the vast amount of resources that are at our disposal to assist each and every one of us in our difficult emotional and physical journeys through life. For a variety of reasons, some of us choose to bury our heads in the sand or look the other way when life becomes uneasy. A very commonly employed mechanism with which to do that is called denial.

Denial is characterized by the refusal to acknowledge or accept painful truths, distressing thoughts, and uncomfortable feelings, despite the overwhelming evidence that the reality exists. Denial is not always a bad thing. It is normal to engage in small amounts from time to time, and we all use it. It can be a beneficial mechanism that absorbs emotional shock and protects our psychological health. It helps us temporarily cope with tough situations, such as grieving, disasters, or trauma that might otherwise interfere with our ability to function. It gives us time to adjust to traumatic changes that occur in our lives.

Using denial as a way to cope with life for short, critical periods of time is healthy and beneficial. It becomes a problem when we use it for long periods of time to avoid accepting a truth and doing the work we need to do. It becomes a problem when it blinds us from the truth and we become stuck in a mindset that prevents us from moving on with our lives.

Granted, it takes a great amount of inner strength to face painful realities, accept them, and overcome them. It is not pleasant or comfortable for any of us to feel the emotions associated with painful events. But we are here to overcome, learn, and grow. Adversity is the catalyst of opportunity we are given to accomplish those things.

I find it extremely frustrating to engage with people who are clearly destroying their lives and their sanity through the use of denial, especially when there are children and other family members involved. It is one thing to destroy one’s self—it’s another thing to drag those we love and care about down with us. But the problem with denial is that is renders us blind to what we are doing. Everyone around us can see it but we cannot.

So what is it about denial that blinds us to the truth? Why do so many of us choose to live our lives in it?

For one thing, we are products of our upbringing. Our coping mechanisms are taught to us by our parents. If our parents used denial as a coping mechanism we will too.

And as children we may have learned to use denial as a way to cope with emotionally unhealthy parents. When we are young we need our parents for survival. If they are absent or abusive we have to psychologically find a way to justify and defend their treatment of us.

Another factor is that our human nature and our egos make it difficult to be objective about our own emotions and behaviors. That is something we hopefully gain over time with life experience and maturity. Objectivity is a skill we are supposed to learn through the trials and tribulations of life.

Freud theorized that defense mechanisms such as denial are strategies used by the unconscious to manipulate, deny, or distort reality in order to defend against feelings of anxiety and unacceptable impulses. There are ten defense mechanisms that he talks about in his studies: Rejection, Repression, Suppression, Displacement, Sublimation, Projection, Intellectualization, Rationalization, Regression, and Reaction Formation.

Rejection involves either a complete rejection of the existence of a reality or an admission of its truth but a minimization of its importance. For instance, those with addictions often use rejection when confronted with a habit they don’t want to give up.

Repression is an unconscious mechanism used to keep painful information out of our conscious awareness. For instance, those who have had painful childhoods or painful childhood episodes that they have difficulty remembering are said to have repressed those memories.

Suppression is a conscious mechanism used to push undesired information out of our awareness or delay it. For instance,  someone who has bills piling up may put off paying them by finding other reasons to be too busy.

Displacement is an ego defense mechanism that involves shifting anxiety producing frustrations or anger about ourselves, others, or situations we find ourselves in onto others. For instance, someone who is frustrated with his boss at work, but cannot act on it for fear he will lose his job, may come home and lash out at his family.

Sublimation is a defense mechanism used to convert unacceptable impulses to a more acceptable form or more productive outlets. For instance, someone who has anger management issues may take up boxing as a socially acceptable way to vent his frustration.

Projection is a passive aggressive defense mechanism used to protect the ego that involves misattributing undesirable or unacceptable thoughts, feelings, or impulses onto someone else. For instance, someone who dislikes another person and feels guilty about it may believe that it is the other person who does not like him.

Intellectualization is a defense mechanism used to avoid thinking about uncomfortable feelings or the reality of a situation by focusing in on the intellectual aspect of it. For instance, someone with cancer may distance himself from the stressful reality of his diagnosis by delving deep into research about it.

Rationalization is a defense mechanism used to distort the facts or explain something away as a way to make a behavior, feeling, impulse, or situation easier to accept.  For instance, a woman suffering from domestic violence may rationalize that her husband really is a good person who doesn’t mean to hurt her.

Regression is a defense mechanism used to reduce anxiety by abandoning developed coping skills and reverting back to earlier stages of development. A child who fears starting first grade may begin wetting his pants. For instance, an adult may throw a temper tantrum when he doesn’t get his way.

Reaction Formation is a defense mechanism used to hide true feelings by behaving in an opposite way. For instance, a boy who likes a girl may bully her to cover up his feelings. Someone may act prim and proper to hide his sexual obsessions.

So, people may use defense mechanisms when their sense of control, their egos, or their safety, is threatened and anytime they feel fragile or vulnerable. They may deny that a problem exists or minimize its significance. They may claim that no options exist so they don’t have to do anything to resolve it.

Denial may be used to maintain relationships with partners, spouses, children, or other family members. Excuses and justifications are made or heads are buried in the sand when a spouse cheats, a child has an eating disorder or is on drugs, or a parent is abusive.

Many people are in denial about the reality of death. Senior citizens may refuse to make arrangements for their nearing funerals, burials, and estates, or may refuse to discuss their plans and wishes with family members.

Someone who has a chronic or terminal illness may deny that it exists, avoiding medical care that could potentially save or prolong his life, someone with mental health issues may not take his medicine, denying that he needs it, or someone with personal or emotional issues may refuse to seek counseling that could help make their life better.

Addicts by nature do not want to stop using or engaging in self-destructive behaviors, therefore will deny that they have a problem, deny that it is as bad as others think it is, or claim that they have it under control.

Those with anger issues may claim that they are not angry or that someone else is responsible for making them act the way they do.  They may justify their constant yelling with the fact that they never actually hit anyone.

Those who are afraid to face themselves or fear change may use denial by claiming that they are who they are and cannot change or that they have tried before and failed therefore refuse to try again.

Someone may choose to see a situation as hopeless so he doesn’t have to do anything about it, or insist that he is the only one capable of taking care of a problem; that he doesn’t need anyone else’s help.

People who suffered childhood abuse at the hands of their parents may describe their childhood as being normal or happy. They may claim that their parents were strict but loving or say that they were not abused because their parents never hit them when in actuality the emotional abuse they suffered scarred them deeply. Or they may claim that the physically abusive punishment was for their own good; that it made them better people.

Denial may be used individually or as a group mentality, as in the case of a nation who refuses to acknowledge sinister or self-serving political motives. Countries risk their future by denying the realities before them. History repeats itself when groups of people deny that catastrophic mass murder exterminations such as the Holocaust ever occurred.

Denial can be very dangerous when people refuse to accept the seriousness of a problem.

It is dangerous when people engage in unhealthy behaviors while denying that what they do is harmful or life threatening. It is dangerous when parents enable their children’s destructive behavior while denying that there are self-serving reasons for doing so, and the child’s problem exacerbates.

Denial is dangerous when someone is clearly on the brink of suicide and no one wants to believe them.

Denial is dangerous when a business or company is obviously failing and its employees do not preemptively find employment elsewhere and end up unemployed.

Denial is dangerous when a property is in foreclosure or a renter faces an eviction and the resident or owner ignores the problem. It’s dangerous when we live beyond our means or max out our credit cards and end up with debt we cannot afford to pay back. These cases often result in homelessness or bankruptcy.

Denial is dangerous when issues are not dealt with and problems get worse. It is dangerous when issues are repressed for long periods of time. Repressed feelings cannot stay hidden forever. They will eventually induce devastating consequences, far worse than the initial problem.

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