Akshay stared at his final year mark-sheet in disbelief, and had to fight the urge to tear it to pieces. He had not managed to get a distinction. There had to be some mistake; these couldn’t be his marks! His papers had been easy, he was sure to get a distinction. He would send his papers for revaluation. Akshay was in denial. He was refusing to believe the results, which were actually accurate [the revaluation revealed]. Denial is nothing but a refusal to acknowledge and accept the truth.
All of us have been in denial from time to time. You think you haven’t? Remember the times when you had any of the following thoughts:
- “There has to be some mistake.”
- “That’s impossible.”
- “There is no way this can happen”.
- “This is ridiculous! They don’t know what they are talking about.”
This is the language of denial, and this is the message we give ourselves when faced with a shocking, unpleasant, or unexpected situation. Our mind simply refuses to absorb what seems to us as an unacceptable situation. It is as though an automatic gate shuts tight, preventing unpleasant issues from entering our awareness. It is usually the most immediate and instantaneous response that we give when faced with an intensely displeasing situation.
The good side of denial
Why does the mind react with complete disbelief when confronted with unpleasant reality? Well, denial—a defence mechanism suggested by psychologist Sigmund Freud—has an important function to serve. Just as a shock absorber eases the impact of a jolt, denial provides the mind with a breather to absorb the shock or the unpleasantness of the reality at hand. While our conscious mind is busy denying the reality, the rest of the mind gets the time to absorb what has happened, make some sense of it, and begin the process of coming to terms with it. As reality begins to sink in, denial starts making its exit.
The bad side of denial
Initial denial is natural and normal; it helps us deal with the situation better. However, when the shock is big, or when a person does not have other resources to deal with reality, denial becomes the only coping mechanism and then the person refuses to let go of it. Minutes may pass into days, days into weeks, and weeks into months, yet the person refuses to accept what has happened. When denial outlives its duration, and ensconces itself firmly in a person’s psyche, there is no space for any other coping to happen. Reality starts getting distorted, and the person starts living in a make-believe world of his own as in the case of Anju.
Obvious vs subtle
Anju lost her mother quite suddenly, to a heart attack. It was such a shock to Anju that her mind refused to accept it. Days after her mother had passed away, she continued to talk about her in the present tense. Even after the rituals were over, she went about keeping a place for her mom at the dinner table, washing and ironing her clothes as though she would wear them, making her bed and so on. Whenever someone tried to talk to her and tell her that her mother was no more, Anju would start screaming and shouting, and accuse the person of harbouring ill-will towards her mother. In Anju’s case, the denial was obvious.
But it can also be barely detectable. It was Thomas’s dream to be an actor, which he pursued with passion. His acting skills were mediocre, and he had many flops. Despite the glaring evidence, accepting that he couldn’t act was too threatening for Thomas’s self-image, and hence, his mind blocked it from his range of vision. As you can see from Thomas’s example, this kind of insidious denial is deep-rooted and highly-resistant to extinction. It can impact the choices that a person makes in life, and how he leads his life. Blatant, obvious denial, on the other hand, is a brittle bubble that eventually does end up breaking, sooner or later. But it is the insidious one that causes more harm. Such kind of denial is common in people, who may have:
- a low self-esteem
- unrealistically high expectations from themselves [or from the world]
- fear of failure.
Often, we tend to deny not the external reality, but our own feelings and emotions. Unfortunately, it is the society we live in, our culture, or our upbringing that unknowingly encourages denial. “Only girls cry” is a classic example of this. Boys who grow up hearing this often end up believing that crying is a sign of weakness. As adults, they end up strongly denying any feeling that comes close to tearfulness. Ditto for all the other negative feelings such as anger, depression and so forth. When we deny powerful feelings like anger and grief, unfortunately, they don’t go away. They get suppressed into our system, and keep affecting us, always finding ways and means to express themselves. That is why a seemingly calm person may suddenly end up having a huge temper outburst, and you are left wondering what happened.
Hence, it’s important to be on our guard against denial—in ourselves as well as our loved ones. Denial is likely in the following scenarios:
- Death of a loved one
- Terminal illness in a loved one
- Mental illness in a loved one
- Drug dependence
Any unexpected event that causes a shock to the system is fertile ground for denial to breed.
Dealing with denial
How does one deal with denial? What would be the best way to help a person in denial accept reality? This is often a sensitive issue. Since denial protects the psyche from harm; the very presence of denial means that the person may not have other effective coping mechanisms to deal with the situation. In such a case, simply forcing the person to accept the situation may cause harm. The person has to be ready to accept reality, and as a loved one, your job may be to gently hold the person’s hand to a point where she can face reality.
A couple had come to us for therapy. The husband was in a perpetual state of denial, where he refused to see his role in the conflicts, and kept focusing on the wife’s issues. Whenever they fought, they hurled accusations at each other, leaving the main issue untouched. Finally, the wife first began owning up to her contribution in their conflicts, and then focused on how his behaviour affected her. The moment she focused on herself rather than on him, it became easier for him to understand his role in the issues.
At times, to see something clearly, it is necessary to create a distance and view the scene from afar. Thus, helping the person gain perspective on the situation, and viewing it objectively helps denial go away by itself. If the denial is deep-rooted, it may be necessary to seek professional help as such denial may be resistant to change and extinction. Also, when this kind of denial clears, it may lead to intense feelings of grief that have been hitherto unexpressed. It is, thus, important to assess the extent of denial that a person is exhibiting, and then decide on how to help the person overcome it.
Let us explore some ways in which you can help a person deal with denial.
- Think of what other coping skill the person requires to deal with the situation, and help to gently build that. For instance, dealing with death of a loved one requires emotional resilience and objectivity. So if you find someone lacking in emotional resilience, and thus getting into denial, help that person build it and denial will automatically recede.
- Help the individual change his or her mental framework about the situation. Use visualisation and imagery to help the person see the altered life situation. This will allow the denial to gradually dissolve as the imagery eventually lets the person to mentally adapt to the altered situation. In Akshay’s case, rather than harping about not getting a distinction, helping him see the future [getting a job despite his grades and doing well] will help him come to terms with reality.
- Help the person look at the options and alternatives. For instance, Thomas lacked good acting skills, but had excellent PR skills. Helping him focus on his strengths and consider an alternative career that would enable him to stay in touch with the film industry can appeal to him. At times, people are so focused on one thing [or the lack of it], they fail to see so many other options that they have.
- Share information. Denial may be linked with ignorance or lack of knowledge. At such times, providing information may immediately help the person to accept the situation better. For instance, consider a person who is confronted with the news that she is in the first stage of cancer. The very word cancer jolts the person into a stage of panic and denial. Here, helping her understand what the first stage means, the treatment options available to her, what is the survival and relapse rate and other information will enable her to see that the situation is not hopeless.
- Talk about the situation being denied within the person’s earshot. So, in Anju’s case, discussing about her mother’s death, talking about her mother’s qualities amongst each other [though not directly to her] will allow the reality to insidiously enter into her awareness.
- Gently confront the person by showing her that her beliefs are irrational. Here, using the principles of Rational Emotive Therapy [RET] can be helpful. RET essentially helps you see how your beliefs about an event, rather than the event itself, causes emotional upset. Rather than the situation being denied, help the person focus on how he is processing that situation, the beliefs he is attaching to it, and then confront those. In Thomas’s case, instead of focusing on the reality [poor acting skills], if you can successfully change his belief, convincing him that being a bad actor doesn’t mean being a failure, will help him to accept the reality.
You will have to choose your method carefully, depending on the situation being denied, the nature and coping skills of the person, and your relationship with the person. While some denial is helpful, and at times, vital for survival, if used as the only means of coping with an unpleasant situation, it can create far more complex problems for us and those around us. At the end of the day, it is all about striking the balance.