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What does it mean to be "in denial"?
We toss this phrase around pretty lightly these days, even jokingly. But what is it really getting at?
Definition: being “in denial” is usually taken to mean refusing or being unable to accept painful realities about a situation or about oneself. And it can be profoundly painful, for ourselves and those around us.
Symptoms: the police inform the mother of a son killed in a car crash. She can’t take in the news: “he always rings me about now. I’ll soon clear up this misunderstanding.”
Alternatively someone who won’t accept they have a problem with drugs or alcohol -“I’m not as bad as my mates”- could also be said to be in denial.
Roots: an early psychoanalytic idea, originally termed “scotomatization” by Freud. However, denial proved much catchier, in fact, too catchy, as the term has been applied to two different processes.
In the case of painful situations, like bereavement, the denial is more a hallucinatory wish fulfilment. It is almost as if the brain, in self-protect mode, has partially closed down until the trauma has passed. This kind of denial is normally short term and ends when the shock wears off.
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The other form of denial, where someone suppresses something about themselves, is more complicated. The person in denial is prepared to swear on a stack of bibles, or take a lie detector test, to prove they are not, for example, angry. No way!
But the feelings can’t be magicked away, and in many cases they accuse others of being angry and scapegoat them for their bad behaviour instead.
This is an idea from Melanie Klein (1882-1960) a pioneer of child therapy. She believed that someone in denial can literally project their feelings onto someone else. They stay calm while their nearest and dearest get angry on their behalf.
Not only are there two different types of denial but the process also gets confused with repression. Denial is entirely unconscious. While with repression, someone is conscious of something. For example, smokers know that cigarettes kill but chose to push the knowledge to the back of their minds.
Solution: what should you do if you believe that your partner, or someone close, is in denial?
Our natural instinct is to try and force them to see the truth. These shock tactics are almost doomed to fail. Remember denial is a defence mechanism. To be able to get up each morning and face ourselves in the mirror, we need to believe that we are good people.
Denial is a very effective way of sustaining our self-belief. So challenging somebody in denial is unlikely to achieve much, beyond making them defensive and turning them against you.
Alternative strategies like negotiating, penalties and a possible reward are scarcely more successful. In the treatment of addictions, professionals have a saying: ‘you can’t help someone until they are ready to help themselves.’ It is one of the reasons for the high dropout rate from treatment programmes.
The same with denial, until your partner is ready to face reality there is no choice but to wait.
If you’re dealing with denial in the aftermath of infidelity, try my book How Can I Ever Trust You Again? Infidelity: From Discovery to Recovery in Seven Steps.
Is there anything you can do in the meantime? First of all, look at your own behaviour. Let’s stay with the example of anger -because this is by far the most common feeling that we deny.
What are your attitudes to anger? How did your parents deal with it? Be honest. Could you be scapegoating your partner for qualities you dislike about yourself; in effect, in denial and projecting onto your partner?
If this is not the case, your detailed examination of your own emotional CV might offer clues as to why their anger presents such a problem for you. Understanding the temptation to rise to their bait is the first step to unhooking yourself.
Changing your behaviour can have a positive knock on effect and help your partner change too.
The second strategy for dealing with denial is to modify your partner’s internal taboos. This is tough, but not impossible. Staying with the example of anger, take a small everyday incident: like being late for an appointment.
When your partner’s body language suggests emotions have moved up a notch, give them permission to be angry by saying something like: ‘Go on say it’ or ‘No wonder you’re angry.’
Once they have seen that acknowledging these small examples of anger does not overwhelm them, they are less likely to deny their feelings on more important occasions.
In other news, my recent podcast conversation with Dr Friedemann Schaub about How to Get Out of Survival Mode, Feel Less Anxious, and Start Living comes highly recommended - it’s full of wisdom on identifying the self-sabotaging patterns and limiting beliefs that prevent us from leading productive, fulfilling and balanced lives.
As always, if it feels like the right time to start marital therapy, send an email to Tricia (email@example.com) for a virtual or in-person appointment with one of my team of therapists in London, or with me here in Berlin.