What is denial? In my experience, it is usually a pain-motivated avoidance of a fact that we do not wish to accept. Or do not know how to accept.
Denial as I have experienced it is usually a combination of conscious and subconscious avoidance. We usually have some awareness of the object of avoidance but we do not often realize the breadth of our efforts to avoid thinking about, talking about, or acknowledge ‘the thing’.
Our subconscious then jumps right in and orchestrates elaborate schemes to keep us limping around the issue, rather than face it. Some of the elaborate denial themes I have experienced are…
1. Blame: My subconscious used to seek out another person’s involvement or even possible involvement in a matter to help me avoid the fact that I had a part, if not the major part, in causing the pain to me and others.
Being left by my wife for example was one life experience that my subconscious went to town with and created the most elaborate blame theories for me to latch onto. I blamed my ex, her family, my family, our church, our culture, divorced friends, the other man, and pretty much anyone else within a mile radius.
These elaborate theories helped me avoid the pain of the fact that I had a huge, if not the main part in why my wife left me. I was, at first, far too devastated and crushed to accept maturely the things I had done to damage the relationship. At the time, it was just too big of a burden to bear. I could not fathom the responsibility of what I had done.
Then the pendulum swung the other way…. all I did was blame myself. Blame of others turned to self-loathing and suicide ideation. I was still too messed up to come to any mature and meaningful understanding and acceptance of what had happened and what my part was…. and what wasn’t. It was just one big painful mess.
Now, years later, with a lot of help, I am able to see and accept in healthy and mature ways what my part was. And just as importantly, what it wasn’t. It is only upon this type of realization that I felt I could find what needed to be changed.
2. Booze and Drugs: My drinking and drugging were largely efforts to avoid pain I had caused. Self medicate. Escape. I see these behaviours now as denial strategies. Especially once I knew I was out of control. Then the elaborate denial strategy was to use the new found awareness of the fact that I was an alcoholic and addict as an excuse to continue. And to avoid genuinely dealing with my part in how I created the painful circumstance.
I wonder if this is not why 12 step programs focus so intently on our own part and character defects. Could it be because we are so tangled in the complex weaves of denial strategies?
It feels our subconscious will go to any length to insulate us from the pain of what the truth might be.
3. Sweep it under the rug: Just never talk about it again. And avoid settings and circumstances where it may be brought up. Ignore it and it will go away. But sadly, it won’t.
Truth has a way of coming out. Truth often needs no spokesperson. Truth often just shows up and stares us straight in the face. What do we do then? Create another complex denial strategy? Or grit our teeth, admit that there is a problem that we can’t or won’t deal with, and ask for help.
Funny how my ex would never set foot in the offices of either counselors, mediators, arbitrators, pastors, or anyone else that could neutrally adjudicate our situation so it was fair, manageable and in the best interest of our kids. She eventually wove complex theories about how doing family mediation was a ploy of mine to be in her presence. And this is 5 years after our divorce and a year after I was remarried.
The fact that we are raising the same children as one another and that we are still linked financially and through many friends and family wouldn’t have anything to do with why we needed mediation would it? With all due respect, and I mean this in the kindest of ways…. Duuuhhhh!
The sad thing about this instance of denial is that our kids are paying the price. And it is bloody expensive. In every way. Worst of all, my kids are learning blame and avoidance strategies by these examples.
4. Overcompensating Behaviours: Ever meet anyone who takes some aspect of their life to an extreme? Whether good, bad or otherwise? I wonder how often they are running from something that they cannot or will not face. And they are knowingly or unknowingly forming a smoke screen to draw attention (theirs and others’) away from ‘the thing’.
I know someone else who left their spouse under questionable circumstances. It appeared quite plainly to be betrayal. Funny thing is that they immediately became Super-Parent! Enrolling their kids in every activity known to man. Including, but not limited to …. Church! Clearly, they could not have betrayed their spouse because they are church-goin’ super-parent!
They are at every school function… (of course always visible, chatting everyone up, parking their vehicle in front where everyone can see they are there, working the room).
All this to help keep themselves from facing up to the fact that they left their spouse for someone else! And hurt little kids and countless friends and family in the process! Not to mention the devoted left-behind spouse who you walked out on!
The high price of denial is the cost of deferred payment. And sadly, if it is us that is in denial, the it may not be just us that defers payment. It will likely be our kids, our spouse, our families and friends.
And hey, if we are still entirely selfish, it may help us to know that when we are in denial, we are paying the price of looking freakin’ ridiculous while we are doing it! Blaming, drinking, sweeping, and overcompensating aren’t hard to spot and don’t exactly look cool! I know, I have tried them all!
The best way to cut the cost is to, as Dr. Phil would put it, “Get real”. And as Chaz would put it, “Get help getting real”.
The only reasons we stay stuck in denial is that we can’t or won’t see what we are doing. But invariably, we do have some sense that something is not right with our circumstance. Denial behaviour is seldom entirely subconscious. We have some sense we are doing it. And to whatever degree we have a sense of it, we have the opportunity to bring it to light with someone we trust. Our doctor, our shrink, our minister, our friend, our counselor, our sponsor, anyone to start.
I am so grateful for the community of AA that keeps people in my life who are willing to help me see these things in my life. Not as experts, but as fellow journeyers who are travelling the path of recovery at the same time as me.