Denial, the refusal to acknowledge a painful fact, thought, or feeling, has a bad reputation these days. Being “in denial” is thought to be contrary, regressive, and the opposite of healing. We are urged to confront the truth, lose our illusions, and stop running away, all in the name of getting healthier.
Denial is protective
In fact, denial’s primary role is protective, a circuit breaker for the psyche. When external events or internal responses overwhelm our resources, denial cuts off the overwhelming input to help us survive and keep us functioning.
Sometimes, one person’s denial affects others around them, for example denial about addiction. The denial serves a protective role, and at the same time, others may need to set boundaries about the behaviors associated with denial. This article does not address the possible external effects of denial.
There are different levels of denial. In the deepest level, there is no awareness that something is being denied. It takes tremendous energy to suppress all awareness of distress, and the information tends to leak out in unintended words, unexplained physical and emotional symptoms, and conflicted attraction around the denied information.
For example, an incest survivor may believe that she had an ideal childhood, but she sometimes surprises herself by saying negative things about her family, and she feels anxious and nauseated when she sees them. She may also be drawn to other survivors who are more conscious of their histories, without realizing the connection.
As we gather more resources over time, we are able to handle information that was previously overwhelming. We may also be drawn to investigate a denied area by the symptoms that arise.
This leads to the next level of denial – the cry of, “No! I don’t believe that!” in response to new information. Now there is awareness of a battle with unpalatable information. Disbelief slows the onrush of change to a bearable level, allowing us to move between the more familiar state of denial, and the newer informed state. We may move back and forth many times before we have made all the adjustments necessary to stay with the new information.
Questioning hidden assumptions
The battle between awareness and denial can be frustrating and exhausting. It is possible that both sides are correct, if the denial is fighting against a hidden assumption that is unacceptable and untrue. For example, an incest survivor may fiercely deny that her family hurt her, because the memories carry an associated toxic shame about being a bad person.
Write a story
When you notice that you are struggling with belief, it can be helpful to explore the hidden assumptions around disputed or denied information. One way to do that is to write a story about a fictional person who does have the denied characteristics.
- Set aside some time when you won’t be disturbed, and can process your responses to this exercise.
- Set a minimum time to write, perhaps 5 minutes, or a length of time that feels right to you.
- Choose a comfortable location, and paper and writing instruments you like (or use your computer). Bring some attention and energy to getting comfortable as you begin.
- Name your fictional character and the information you’re exploring. You can start with a mild version of the disputed information. For example, “Sometimes Tina’s parents were mean to her.”
- Start writing whatever comes to mind, and keep writing for at least the minimum time you set. You can write, “I can’t think of anything else to say,” if you run out of ideas. If the words are flowing at the end of your allotted time, keep going until you reach a stopping point.
- Set your writing aside, and take a break. Stretch, drink water, or do other activities that help you feel peaceful and centered.
- When you’re ready, read over what you’ve written, slowly. Pause after each sentence, and notice how your body feels. Are you tightening up, or relaxing? Are there any sentences that evoke a particularly strong reaction? Is there anything surprising to you? The intention is to simply observe, rather than trying to change anything.
- Remember to breathe and return to center as you complete the exercise.
- In a few days, check in with yourself and notice how you feel around the disputed information. You may want to do the writing exercise again and see if anything new comes up.
Slowing down change
Denial helps you heal by slowing down the changes required by new information and giving you time to adjust. Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross named denial as the first of five natural stages of grief in response to terminal illness or catastrophic loss. Denial also protects you from hidden beliefs that are unacceptably damaging. Embracing denial as a useful survival skill can help remove some of the struggle from your healing process.
Byron Katie has created a simple, powerful system for identifying and questioning assumptions called The Work.