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Working Through Denial

Denial is one of our strongest defence mechanisms. It is considered a primitive defence as it develops early in childhood. Denial helps us not to feel pain, anxiety or fear around an issue that typically (and perhaps should) do so. We defend against an experience we can't tolerate - otherwise, we wouldn’t need the defence at all. At times, reality can feel constricting, it presents us with a feeling or perception that doesn’t sit well with how we want or expect our life to be. For example, someone may be in denial about the detrimental degree their physical health is in because if they admitted it they would have to change their lifestyle habits. This confrontation could bring up fears of inadequacy and thoughts of death. When we spend money beyond our means because the reality of our financial situation makes us feel feeble, denial is an easier path for our psyche to follow. Or perhaps going on a date with someone who is married. Denial can be the comfortable bubble protecting us from reality, in which we can construct whatever story we choose. Ultimately denial stunts your growth and can impinge relationships - Couples who deny their partner is depressed. Parents who deny their children are aware of the marriage conflict at home. People who adamantly say, “they’re fine” when they’re anything but. Often in clinical treatment, there has been a rupture leading to a forced confrontation of reality. However, outside of the treatment room and in relationships it can feel like a losing battle supporting someone through their periods of denial. In the long-run, denial doesn’t win against reality. Eventually, reality catches up with people, either through an individual’s own realizations or an event which forces the wake-up call. Denial’s unfortunate next of kin is typically blame, resulting in black-and-white thinking and a whole myriad of unhelpful thought patterns.

In regards to monitoring your own level of denial, observe your knee-jerk reactions next time a sensitive topic comes up. What is preventing you from considering another point of view? What would it mean to consider another perspective?

Most importantly, it is never your job to push someone else out of denial. The defence is there for a reason, and as a friend, partner or family member, consider what is making denial so comfortable for them. What’s on the other side of the defence?


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