We are all in denial of something. Whether it’s about something trivial like how witty you think you are (you’re probably not), or something more meaningful like how communicative you are as a partner (again, probably not as much as you think), we all battle that familiar acridness of denial.
But what is the reason for that bitter, blooded refusal to see something in ourselves honestly? When denial is brought to our attention, we must take a real look at something that we have been unconsciously hiding because it could overwhelm us. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross said, “There is a grace in denial. It is nature’s way of letting in only as much as we can handle.” But sometimes we can let the denial get out of hand, because too often we sacrifice the remote, yet healing nature of truth, for the instant warmth of comfort (see About page).
The wonderful thing about denial, though, is that it acts like a big fat arrow pointing at the truth. When you feel that familiar defensive impulse (which may be in your head right now going, “This is NOT me at all”), after allowing yourself a moment to feel it, try asking, “Hm. What could incite a reaction like that?” If (and when) you are ready to actually see the reason, it will be there waiting for you.
- You reject being at fault for doing anything sincerely wrong, like treating someone cruelly or being malicious, even if you do it over and over. This is the denial of the shadow-self. Now bear with me, I know it’s not the most official sounding term. But the shadow-self is a broad way of labeling the negative side of a personality. And since we’re all human, we all have one (though it can be incredibly upsetting to admit and accept). This side of ourselves often manifests in patterns of “bad behavior”. Personally, I can act coldly and harshly to my husband, and then immediately write it off with, “I’m angry, why would I act nice?” Once I forbade myself from denying that this was obviously my nature—as well as my fault—I was able to slowly accept it. (That does not mean condone it!) Being conscious of this nature, as well as my iniquity, forced me to take responsibility for that side and learn to act more thoughtfully. It’s natural to have a dark side, but you can control it more if you bravely acknowledge its exists.
- There’s someone who annoys you to the point where you can’t stop talking about her, and deep down you know it affects you a bit too much. This is again the denial of the shadow-self, but through projection. Psychologist Carl Jung believed that what annoys us the most in other people is really what annoys us the most within ourselves. This is best described with another personal anecdote: I had a boss I absolutely hated. He was moody, judgemental, and negative, and I spent—literally—hours of my week complaining about him. Naturally, when I came across Jung’s theory, I thought, “Nope. I’m nothing like him.” After a week of obsessive denial (and my husband exhausting his patience), it struck me that I was being moody, judgemental, and negative. Then I began to seriously consider how I acted in my life, and I realized that my boss and I were like hyper-anxious, passive-aggressive twins. He was that way at work, I was that way at home. Yes, I despised myself for about a month, but I came to truly see how I treated others, and how they might have felt towards me because of it. Believe me, this is a quick way to inspire internal change. So if you immediately had someone pop into your head while reading this, I’d take a careful look into what’s igniting that animosity.
- You act as if something incredibly hurtful does not affect you. The denial of grief. For many of us, when something painful happens we immediately drive our energy into moving on. I’ve seen friends go through horrible break-ups and say, “Screw him! I’m totally over it.” I’ve seen actors lose an amazing role and say, “Whatever, I just wasn’t what they were looking for.” My experience of this denial is a bit wider. For me, things in my childhood carried with me into adulthood that I had learned to accept as facts of life. It was only when I finally admitted that these things had been traumatizing, and realized that living with the pain was necessary, that I understood the cause of the mysterious emotional insecurity I had experienced for years. You need to let yourself grieve. And though you must reface the trauma, you’ll finally begin to heal.
- You blame your lack (of success, popularity, happiness, whatever) on your outer situation or other people. Denial of accountability. Personally, I believe our generation has been conditioned to have this outlook. We are told repeatedly as children that we will live extraordinarily fulfilling lives, but as adults we can’t seem to achieve it. So it may feel like society, our parents, our teachers, etc. failed to prepare us, but no matter what anyone told you, no one is responsible for your life but you. The fear of taking up that responsibility can be paralyzing, so it’s easier to languish in the frustration and deny the reality of your power than take up your burden. This is certainly true for me, but whenever I feel hopeless or listless I remind myself that no one is coming to save me. Not even God could present my dreams on a silver platter. My failures (and successes) belong to me alone. Once you take ownership, you’ll really have incentive to take action.
Photo by Gabriela Camerotti