People need to believe they’re not reprehensible turds to keep from suck-starting any shotguns. So, from a biological standpoint, denial is an evolutionary advantage. In terms of personal growth and development, however, denial is an invisible hurdle that sufferers don’t even know they have to clear. It’s kind of an impossible situation.
Gaslighting, for example. Unpopular opinion, I know, but I don’t think most people consciously choose to gaslight. I really believe it’s a compulsive trauma response. It would be quite difficult to knowingly participate in such despicable behavior whilst maintaining the belief that you’re a good person. Cognitive dissonance would make it unbearable.
Have you ever thought, “This motherfucker would rather die than admit he’s wrong”? Yeah, you’re right. It’s like that. Litch-rally. So what kind of survival mechanism stunts your growth and keeps you from thriving?
Well, arguably all survival mechanisms.
Think of a survival strategy like a spare tire. It’ll get you where you need to go in an emergency. But you can’t drive around on that donut for 50 years. Hell, you can’t even do 50 mph on that damn thing without risking your life. Unfortunately, people tend to think that a spare tire is just as good as a regular tire and before long, they’re cruising around town on four donuts getting chronic flat tires and blaming the bumpy road.
Damn, that metaphor turned out better than I anticipated.
What Is Denial?
As Melody Beattie says, “Denial is the shock absorber of the soul.” It exists for good reason and provides quite the valuable service. This is why trying to wrestle people out of their delusions of convenience is such a futile effort. It’s like trying to explain something to someone whose salary depends on them not understanding it. A losing fight if ever there was one.
Because denial tends to occupy the very seat of our consciousness, it’s not often that we’re privy to our own dissociations. But it sure is easy to spot other people’s denial, isn’t it? Unfortunately, we don’t do anyone any favors by trying to drag them out of their comfort zone kicking and screaming so we can stab them in the eyes with the rusty screwdriver of reality.
Denial, delusion, and dissociation certainly have their differences. But for the purpose of this article, I’m lumping them together as psychological defense mechanisms the human brain employs without your permission to protect you from something that would definitely overwhelm your capacity to cope. And this is the very definition of a trauma response.
So, as it turns out with most things, denial isn’t the problem; it’s a solution. And trying to strip people of the only solution they’ve got without their consent or cooperation, without identifying the underlying problem or providing support and alternative solutions… well, it’s equal parts naive, ineffective, and rude.
What To Do About Denial
Denial isn’t usually something we can deal with directly. We start by recognizing that denial is the psychological duct tape that’s holding some shit together. Self-esteem, the illusion of certainty, a false sense of power, synthetic belonging — usually some unmet need. When people feel safe, seen, soothed, and secure, they don’t desperately need denial to protect them anymore and they can begin to let it go.
Therefore, the first step in getting reacquainted with reality is making it safe to do so. What this looks like and how long it takes will depend entirely on the individual — the severity of their trauma, the safety of their environment, the number of resources they have access to, the amount of healthy and trustworthy connections they have, etc.
In the recovery community, there’s a saying that people often hear a loud cork pop after accumulating a few years of sobriety. According to folklore, this is the sound of pulling your head out of your own ass. In such cases, a tremendous amount of learning, healing, and growth has taken place in a loving and supportive community, rendering denial obsolete.
In other words, by doing significant healing work on trauma, self-esteem, addiction, abandonment, shame, codependency, or whatever, we necessarily chip away at the armor of denial. But what if denial is the very thing that’s keeping someone from doing any of this healing work in the first place?
Well, that’s why the good Lord invented excruciating pain and rock-bottom desperation. Works like a charm.
The Secret Recipe
In order to bust down denial, these, I believe, are the essential elements:
If someone isn’t willing to ask for help, go to therapy, work together with someone, question their beliefs, follow suggestions, etc. there isn’t shit anyone can do about it. You just gotta wait for them to burn their whole ass life to the ground and then ask again if they can find any willingness in the smoldering rubble. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it heal its childhood trauma.
“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble,” wrote Mark Twain, “It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” People that are too damn smart for their own good are impossible to work with. They’re chock full of “I knows” and “Yeah buts.” If you don’t have enough humility to consider the possibility that you might be wrong about some things, you are deeply fucked. You can’t put anything in a cup that’s already full.
If you don’t feel safe — in your home, your family, your job, your relationships, your mind, your body, your life — you’ll be driven by survival strategies and maladaptive coping mechanisms (like denial). I cannot emphasize this enough. Without consistent feelings of safety, your lizard brain is calling all the shots. And you’ll be hard-pressed to thwart 500 million years of neurobiological evolution.
Dr. Gabor Maté says, “Safety is not the absence of threat, it is the presence of connection.” At its core, all trauma is an experience of disconnection, dissociation, and disintegration. Therefore, the healing process requires that we reconnect, reassociate, and reintegrate our experiences, feelings, thoughts, senses, and reality. This will definitely require the support of safe and trustworthy human connection (therapist, coach, mentor, etc.). It cannot be done in isolation.
Personal transformation, going toe-to-toe with your inner demons, soul surgery, resolving trauma, reparenting yourself, dismantling core limiting beliefs, recreating your life — none of this shit is a stroll in the park. It may in fact be the most challenging thing you ever do. You gotta be willing to work hard and face the inevitable growing pains inherent to the process. The worst pain is reserved for those who refuse to acknowledge its necessity.
Remember, denial is not the problem, it’s but a symptom of much deeper issues that may require professional help to even identify, let alone solve. They say denial stands for “Don’t Even Know I Am Lying.” It works better phonetically. I actually didn’t realize until writing it down just now that it’s not a true acronym. But that’s neither here nor there.
If you suspect that you may be in denial, I suggest using the secret recipe and definitely getting some professional help. If someone you know is obviously in denial, the unfortunate truth is that you may be powerless to help. The very best you can do is embody the five elements, lead by example, and cultivate safe connection with them (which includes not trying to tear down the defense mechanism of denial they’re currently using to feel safe).
People are gonna hold onto their delusion for exactly as long as they need to. But the good news is that life itself is a journey from unconsciousness to consciousness, and over time, denial simply cannot sustain. To paraphrase the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward waking the fuck up and gettin that crust outta yo eyeball.
4 thoughts on “Denial: The Gift and The Curse”
Great article! My husband refers to it as his doghouse.
“If I’m a scared dog hiding in the back of my doghouse, and you’re trying to drag me out by my ears, don’t play the victim when you get bit.”
I’ve learned to leave him alone until he comes to me, in those cases.
BTW, I’m saving this amazing quote from you.
“If you don’t have enough humility to consider the possibility that you might be wrong about some things, you are deeply fucked.”
Yes! Always a treat to hear from you, Sash. And I love that doghouse metaphor. Will probably use that one. Thanks!
What are the 5 elements?
Willingness, humility, safety, connection, and grit 🙂