Note: the information in this article was gathered from personal experience, reflection, and work with my own feelings. Take it as you will.
Definition of Denial
The condition wherein one deliberately thinks of something as true, despite evidence to the contrary existing within one’s mind or feelings. Evidence is deliberately ignored for the sake of preserving held beliefs. The primary cause of choosing to deny seems to be for the sake of positive consequences of holding the chosen beliefs, specifically positive, desired feelings.
Probable Symptoms of Denial
Denial in General:
- Trouble identifying what’s wrong, even when it feels like something is
- Trying to achieve inner peace through suppression of feelings
- Refusal to look at evidence that contradicts beliefs, preferences, or justifications for habits
- A lot of beliefs in general
- Lack of earnest curiosity
- Intense tension
- Blaming others a lot when things go wrong, or blaming in general
- Feeling untouchable and not knowing one’s own weaknesses
- Getting annoyed at or impatient with the process of addressing feelings or problems
- Irresponsible behavior (towards others and one’s self) in general
- Discomfort with being alone by one’s self
- Problems in life building up over time and never getting addressed, until perhaps they become so big that they are much tougher to handle
- A tendency to try and prove one’s beliefs or look for evidence to prove them, rather than to be open to evidence and the possibility of those beliefs being disproven
Denial of Physical Health:
- Refusal to change habits, attachment to unhealthy habits
- Poor Health
Denial in the Social Realm:
- Disrespect towards others
- Thinking everyone loves you
Denial of Emotional Health:
- Fakeness, or regularly acting a surface level of emotion, perhaps without recognizing or admitting it
- Forcing smiles on a regular basis
- Dislike of “deep” conversations
- Not feeling connected to one’s own feelings
- Refusal to feel, or to express feeling even to one’s self
Denial of Mental Health:
- Neurotic behavior
- Outbursts of violence or anger
Denial in the realm of trying to speak and act in positive ways:
- Dismissive of the opinions and thoughts of others
- Not recognizing one’s own mistakes when interacting with others
- Lack of Remorse
Denial with regards to the quality of one’s ideas, ideals, and principles:
- Lack of effectiveness
- Allowing evil & unwise principles to take root
- Lack of balance or consideration of multiple viewpoints
Denial in the realm of the direction one wants to take one’s life, decisions, and choices:
- Anger, restlessness
- Can easily snap
- Deflecting questions about one’s motives
What seems to cause Denial
As you can see from the above, denial can create all kinds of problems, or rather assist in keeping problems in place. So why deny things in the first place?
The answer seems to be that when we think things ARE good, we FEEL good, at least to a certain extent. When we deny inner conflict, we can feel peaceful, and less stressed. When we deny threats to our health, we can feel safe, and less fearful. But in the mean time, problems still cause effects in our lives, whether we look at them or not, making it beneficial to move away from denial as a way of life, and instead to go looking for problems where they exist, and overcome them, even if it can take some time.
However, if we think things are good, how do we know that they aren’t? Maybe we’re not in denial, but really, conditions in life are truthfully great at that moment. I suppose in that case it’s just important to remain open to the existence of problems and to the evidence they create of their existence. For instance, becoming overweight can be a sign of a problem there. It may be a complex problem, with both physical and emotional components, but one could still identify that as a problem, given knowledge about the adverse effects that being overweight has on health.
Going back to the basics of denial, it seems that the main motive behind denial involves the positive feelings gained when we think things are in good condition. For instance if we refuse to consider the danger of a situation, we can feel less fear, and more safety and confidence when entering that situation. Yet maybe that suspicion of fear could help us to avoid danger and maintain our health, even if we had to feel it, even a little bit, and consider how things might be dangerous or scary. If we purposely shelter ourselves from what’s going on, we don’t change what’s going on, but we might feel a bit better on a moment-to-moment basis – safer, more peaceful, etc.
Working through Denial
The three main protections against denial seem to be problem-solving, openness to being wrong, and a lack of belief.
The first, problem-solving, just involves having the recognition and solving of problems be a part of one’s life. A big part of denial is a lack of responsibility, or shying away from problems that exist in life – perhaps because they’re too hard, too troublesome, etc. And rather than simply deciding not to work on a problem, one can decide to deny that a problem even exists. However, a problem unrecognized will still cause its effects, and perhaps get worse and worse over time. This makes problem-solving, or at least problem-recognition, a key component in terms of overcoming denial.
Openness to being wrong and a lack of belief both involve remaining open to the possibility that whatever truth one perceives to be real is something which can be disproved or expanded upon. Why is this important? Well, for one, it allows us to stay curious, despite any amount of accumulated knowledge. A certain amount of rigidity, and a lack of openness, seems critical for falling into a state of denial.
But what about beliefs? Aren’t they good? Shouldn’t we stand for something, and believe in something? I include a lack of beliefs as crucial for overcoming denial mainly because beliefs cause rigid adherence to a perception of reality. And because one’s perception of reality can always mismatch reality itself, belief can cause a displacement with respect to reality, and an inhibition of one’s ability to form new perceptions that adapt to new information. And without being able to think in new ways, how would we be able to see our own denial? Flexibility, rather than rigidity, seems key to overcoming denial and remaining open to perceiving the new aspects of the truth, especially problematic ones.
So what does a lack of denial look like? To me it seems to translate to just a greater openness to learning new things, remaining open to any and all problems, patience with the existence of problems, curiosity remaining alive and well, and just a humble recognition of the existence of blindspots in one’s thinking. But how does one achieve these things? How do we work through denial, when we might even deny our denial of things? And how do we not go too far, and second-guess our own perceptions, questioning ourselves to the point of being unable to act?
As far as I can see, it involves balancing one’s desire for an accurate understanding of the truth with the desire to feel good. But, once again, how do we sense imbalances? It seems to me like a multi-faceted problem, since it involves exposing ourselves to possibilities that may make us feel really really bad. Certain possibilities may bring up fear, inner conflict, doubt, indecision, intense anger, upset, or guilt. But, first, it’s important to remember that all possibilities are just that: possibilities. Even the ideas we push away might not be true.
One way to work through denial is to actively examine the truth of something with a critical eye. But rather than just anything, why not examine the areas where denial could harm you most: the conditions of your life, and your approach to making those conditions the best they can be. That is to say, we all have certain conditions in our life that we’d like, but sometimes our beliefs and perceptions of reality can inhibit us from improving those conditions. For instance, we may want to be happy, but may believe it’s just not possible and that we’re an unhappy person or that events in the past, being unchangeable, mean we’ll never be happy. However, these beliefs may or may not be true, and might be worth reexamining in case some flaw in them may allow you to bypass them, and seize upon a possibility that, once explored, may allow you to improve your life conditions.
So, here is an exercise you can do in order to work through your own denial by examining your own mindset with a critical eye, which in turn can improve your life, allow you to explore new truths, and ultimately overcome limiting beliefs.
Note: whenever you work with feelings, you may feel things unrelated to the feelings you’re focusing on. Those feelings may lead you to things impacting you more than what you’re trying to focus on. Thus, with the following exercise it may help more to let yourself get side-tracked by other feelings when the moment calls for it.
- Write a list of conditions you’d like to be true in your life, that don’t currently seem to be true. Put no restriction on these things – think far-fetched ideas, rather than what seems practical or achievable. Basically, if you could have the kind of life you most wanted, what would it look like compared to where you’re at now? Some conditions might be: “be happy”, “have a healthy body”, “have a positive and peaceful relationship with everyone I know”, “have enough money to support myself without working myself ragged”. That kind of stuff.
- Pick the one you’d most like to have be true, and put it on a line separate from the rest of the list.
- Why do you want it? Write the answer to that question on the next line.
- Why can’t you have it? Write that answer on the next line. You can also write it as a list of reasons.
- Now pretend you’re a third-party critic. If you were to directly criticize the person who just wrote what you did on step four, what would you say? Write it out on the next line.
- Engage in a written conversation with this critic until it calms down. Our inner, critical mindset has an uncanny ability to call us out on things that we ourselves might be ignoring or in denial about. Working with a critic, who can freely criticize us in every possible way, can help us to become more clear, responsible, and capable. Furthermore, our inner critic is great at identifying problems for us, problems which we may have been denying. And while it may be up to us to solve and work through those problems, the inner critic can be a valuable force for pulling up issues that may have been left ignored. Allow the critic to bring the topic of conversation to other issues that may be problem areas, or things it feels you’re ignoring, as this may also be valuable in overcoming denial.
Notice how a lot of this exercise focuses on taking the role of a critic and criticizing yourself. I feel like self-criticism is one of the most important pieces to the puzzle of how to overcome denial. Why? Because by remaining open to what our honest, critical inner voice might say to us about our actions, thinking, and way of living, we have at least one method of confronting our own beliefs and bypassing our own bias for keeping beliefs so solidly in place.
This is especially critical for overcoming the excuses we make for ourselves, or our own laziness. Whenever we think “well, things are not so bad”, if we allow this thinking to go to the extreme, then things could get really really bad before we do anything about them. However, when acting as a critic to ourselves, we can easily pose arguments to ourselves about how bad things really are, even if we don’t 100% believe those arguments. And while debating against these arguments, we may find that our current mindset is solid enough, and based in enough truth to quell our own criticism. But, on the other hand, we may find that our critical mindset is correct in the problems it identifies, problems such as laziness or making excuses for ourselves while conditions worsen. In that case, we might find some new actions we want to take in order to make life better for ourselves, that maybe we had excused away before.
However, if it seems intimidating to criticize yourself and point out problems to yourself, keep in mind that it is a legitimate argument to accept a problem as existing, but to decide to do nothing about it because you have other priorities. This, at least, isn’t denial, but instead just inaction. Refusing to act on a problem that you know is there is much more benign, since you can act on it later when you are in a place where it seems like a viable option of something to work on. Denying that a problem is even there is much worse, since while in both cases you’ll do nothing about it, when you deny a problem, you have a much lower chance of dealing with it in the future, or in considering it at all.
For instance, let’s say I had some unresolved anger. If I were to deny that anger, I would go around like nothing was wrong, I might pass off burgeoning anger as heartburn or something. I might not treat people well, but I’d go on not treating them well because, well, I wouldn’t think I was angry. But if I knew I had some unresolved anger, but did nothing about it at the moment, then I might work on other things, but keep it in the back of my mind as something important to address. More than that, though, I might spend less time around people, especially when I felt the anger come up, because I was aware of the problem and didn’t want anyone else to become effected. I would be aware of my own weakness or ailment, of the effects of having it, and what I could do to limit the damage caused by that ailment while I had it. And, perhaps partly due to the inconvenience of such anger, I might remain motivated to solve it, and eventually take the time to work through it.
Having a healthy relationship with self-criticism, and to invite that criticism without getting your self-esteem crushed by it, seems like one of the most positive things you can do for bypassing denial, solving problems in your life, and finding holes in the comfortable beliefs that may limit you from the conditions of life you’d most earnestly like to have.
Healthy self-directed criticism can get you to investigate problems you only feel and suspect to be there, it can get you to remain honest with yourself, even when you might rather be lazy and irresponsible to your own detrement. It can help you to take more responsibility, so that even if you choose to do nothing, you’re more able to recognize the problems that you are not actively solving, so that even if you have other priorities, you don’t have to suffer the consequences that come from pretending the problem isn’t there.
And no, the critic in you isn’t always right. Sometimes the things it identifies as problems aren’t actually problems. But in the interest of solving the legitimate problems, a healthy discussion of what problems might exist can help you to solve the problems that you feel do exist.
Probable Benefits of working through Denial
- A clearer understanding of the truth, and a recognition that you can handle unpleasant ideas
- Greater humility
- Living in and/or feeling momentum towards more positive conditions on multiple levels in life
- Greater open-mindedness
- Greater ability to handle criticism
- Greater responsibility
- Feeling willing and able to solve problems
- Patience with the existence of problems
- Actively identifying problems, even if you choose not to work on them
Articles related to Denial
Anxiety – Denial seems intimately linked to anxiety, because with anxiety you’re also pushing away or constricting yourself against life as it is, with all its changes and circumstances, rather than facing and being open to it. Allowing the flow of information is also important as it can aid you in making choices appropriate to the moment.
Self-Mistrust – if you can trust yourself to handle the truth, you can potentially look past beliefs and remain open to understanding what’s true, wanting the truth so it can aid you in how you respond to things.
Powerlessness – If on a deeper level you feel powerless in your ability to respond positively to life’s realities, you may feel inclined to believe illusions and lies instead. What you may perceive as true can be intimidating sometimes, but that doesn’t mean one is powerless to face it, nor that denying it aids in finding a solution for it.
Negativity – If you’re negative towards the truth of how reality seems to be, you may try to get around facing those realities, and try for another way, such as denial of what you really see or feel.
Impatience – Impatience with the existence of problems seems like one motivation that can cause one to deny the existence of those problems, since by doing so one can gain some relief. However, by working through impatience one might no longer need denial.
Stress – the stress that can come up in response to problems and problematic feelings can make it easier to just deny the existence of those problems. Like with impatience, learning how to work through stress may make it so that stress is no longer a problem, and so denial is no longer needed.
Self-Deceit: Falling for an Illusion – self-deceit is basically denial, and this article talks about how compelling self-deceit can be, but how the desire for truth, due to the damaging side-effects of self-deceit, can help to overcome its allure
Wikipedia Article on Denial – Detailed article on denial and various aspects of it. Definitely seems to add a lot to the mental discussion of it