Denial is one of the hardest things to explain to people who show an interest in the breakdown of my last long term relationship. It is also one of my biggest sources of shame. This topic usually comes up in the form of a leading and judgmental question along the lines of: “You must have known he was an alcoholic. How could you not?”
The truth is, most people are in denial all the time. Imagine every time you or a loved one got into a car you were pummeled with the realization that on average 100 people in the US die every day in motor vehicle accidents. Consider living in the constant fear that in the kitchen of every restaurant you ate in, the prep cook added unsavoury things to your food. Think about what life would be like if you settled on the possibility that you would contract a flesh eating disease while on your discount all-inclusive vacation. Think of how crappy life would be if every time you ate something unhealthy you imagined exactly how long you would need to exercise in order to work off the calories.
Truthfully, there are people who suffer constantly with these truths; but for the most part, we all ignore them so as not to interfere with our daily activities and obligations. We do this because the the world is unpredictable and scary and it would be overpowering to carry that around.
Denial goes hand in hand with addiction. Most addicts function in denial of their habit and it is not unusual for the people around them to also operate in denial of the problem. In a lot of ways, this is “easier” and less scary for everyone because the reality of change, recovery, and the social perception of the disease are too much to bear.
I’m sure you can all think of some good real life examples of denial, but I like the way it is presented here as degrees of intensity:
- First Degree: Denial that the problem, symptom, feeling or need exists
- Second Degree: Minimization or rationalization
- Third Degree: Admitting it, but denying the consequences
- Fourth Degree: Unwillingness to seek help
– Darlene Lancer (WhatisCodependency.com)
Denial does not always mean there is no acknowledgement of the problem, it can also include a justification or minimization of the impact.
So why do we do it?
Simply, it’s a common coping mechanism; it is a way to avoid physical and emotional pain. It is self-preservation: “If I don’t admit the problem, I don’t have to suffer the consequences. I don’t need to fear the implications of the truth and I don’t have to take any action to correct the problem.”
This is not to suggest that this is something that is always a conscious act. For most, what we believe is formed by our experiences and evidence as it is presented. As humans, we are prone to something called “cognitive bias” which basically means that we create our own reality based on our perceptions which in turn influences our behaviour in the social world. So we take our experiences and sort them into something that is palatable to us and often this is done in a way that is most flattering to us so we can go on with our lives justified in our actions and choices.
I like the example that Mark Manson uses in his new book “Everything is F*cked” to demonstrate cognitive bias. A girl is mistreated by her boyfriend and he leaves her. She has one of two choices in shaping her perception of these events to make it something she can live with: 1. Boys are sh*t, or 2. She is sh*t. Option 2 is too painful, so she subconsciously chooses Option 1.
Cognitive bias is helped by another human thought process called “confirmation bias”. This is the tendency to search for, interpret, and recall information that reinforces or confirms the persons’ existing beliefs. Returning to Mark’s example; the girl, believing that all boys are sh*t, spends a number of years subconsciously proving that rationalization correct. She is attracted to boys that treat her like garbage and enforce her cognitive bias that they are sh*t. Faced with a boy that is not sh*t, she is unable to accept this reality and ends up leaving him because the implications and adjustments that would be required to re-write her perception of the world and own cognitive bias are simply too painful to consider.
The truly tragic takeaway here is that there was a third option all along that desperation, pain, and bias caused her to overlook! Neither her nor boys are sh*t, the one that hurt her had his own set of issues which in reality had very little to do with her.
Denial is a defense mechanism that prevents threatening emotions entering our conscious thought due to an inability to cope with that negative state. This leads to all kinds of unflattering and self-sabotaging behaviour such as: lying, developing a “false self”, and social isolation. The often unethical behaviour that results can also be a source of shame, self-hatred, and low self-worth. These messy emotions provide further reasons not to face the truth. There is also evidence to suggest that in those cases where chronic substance abuse is a factor, the substance impairs insight, self-awareness and makes a person unwilling or unable to weigh future consequences in comparison with their present need. In other words, the substance becomes the centerpiece around which denial is build to act as a shield.
In facing my own denial, I’ve come to realize that while reflection is a valuable and insightful tool, dwelling on our mistakes as anything more than learning experiences is an impediment to progress. When people tell me about positive (and sometimes obvious) steps they’ve taken to improve their lives, I’ve tried to stop asking them why they didn’t make their move sooner or comment on their process. Instead I try to applaud them for making it at all. I’ve started reassuring people they don’t need to justify themselves to me, I’m happy for them taking the reigns. Period.
Denial has taught me that the brutal unflinching honesty and accountability required to face our authentic selves and learn from it is the ultimate measure of bravery. It takes amazing courage to look in those dark and hidden recesses of your mind and pull out the shrapnel.
Don’t let anyone make you feel any less than hardcore for doing it.