Denial Prevents Pain, but Also Prevents Change
When you face the truth, you change your life and deepen your relationships.
Posted Jul 30, 2020
When I was a kid, I once overheard my mom on the phone, saying, “Jason keeps pretending he can’t hear me when I call him to help with the dishes.” My own kids sometimes adopt this same strategy. Have you ignored a summons to step up and be responsible? Dismissed emails to avoid something unpleasant? Rejected the news about the dangers of sugar, booze, or nicotine?
Dodging reality to live in denial is a forte of our species. A few years back, I was in a thrift store and found a used book from the 1950s arguing vigorously for the health benefits of cigarette smoking. When we don’t want to change, we stick our heads in the sand and use denial. The satirical newsmagazine The Onion nailed it with their article, “New Study Finds Nothing That Will Actually Convince You to Change Your Lifestyle So Just Forget It:” It said:
“Though it contains several significant discoveries with a direct bearing on human health, a comprehensive study published this week in The Journal Of The American Medical Association has found no data that will in fact convince you to change your lifestyle in any way, so what’s the point of even telling you about it?”
The more we want something, the more we are tempted to ignore the truth if it gets in our way of having it. In twelve-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous, the first step is to get past denial. This is because, as author Stephen King writes, “[Addicts] build defenses like the Dutch build dikes.” King knows this firsthand, as he wrestled with alcohol and drug use. He told himself he “just liked to drink,” or, as a sensitive artist, he needed the drugs to face the pain and challenge of writing. Like most addicts, he thought he was the exceptional person that could handle it. It wasn’t until his wife and family confronted him, including dumping out a garbage bag of evidence (beer cans, cocaine spoons, cigarette butts, Valium, Xanax, Robitussin, Nyquil, and mouthwash bottles), that his denial walls crumbled down.
Facing reality is painful, but it is better to address warning signs instead of turning a blind eye. Sometimes spouses ignore signs of addiction (she keeps coming home late plastered), infidelity (why does he abruptly shut the laptop when I come in the room?), or lies (that story just changed again). Excuses mount, and denial becomes enabling. It’s easier to ignore warnings than have difficult conversations, but this leaves problems free to grow unchecked.
Some of the damage from child abuse is caused by those who looked the other way and ignored the warning signs. Many victims tried to tell a parent or teacher about mistreatment and were disregarded or pressured not to talk. When this happens, victims doubt their own reality, and the truth gets lost.
This distortion occurs in domestic violence, where abusers minimize their actions, and threats of being hurt cause confusion and self-doubt in those who are abused. One of my projects examined how an abuser’s blame can persuade a victim to doubt what happened and blame themselves. One woman said: “[He convinced me that] if I would’ve just done this, he wouldn’t have taken my debit card away, or … he wouldn’t have yelled at me or said that I was stupid.”
Survivors also use denial to cope, because it is hard to admit abuse is occurring, or leave. Denial gives a victim a chance to come to terms with an awful situation while trying not to feel worthless. As another research participant said: “If you can not focus on the negative, things are always better. If you live in your dream world with the rainbow, all that stuff, it’s always much easier to cope. If he was bad about everything, then I had to be bad, too.”
Denial of reality may be understandable, but problems don’t usually change by themselves. If you are disregarding important concerns, it’s time for a cold splash of truth. Ask yourself: Am I avoiding a difficult issue? Do I sometimes rewrite reality in a way that becomes dishonest?
If so, it may be time to break through the denial and accept the facts. This is how change occurs and relationships become more authentic.
Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of The Craft (New York: Scribner Books, 2000), p. 94.
Terry Trepper, and Mary Jo Barrett, Systemic Treatment of Incest: A Therapeutic Handbook (London: Routledge, 2013).
Jason B. Whiting, Megan Oka, and Stephen T. Fife, "Appraisal Distortions and Intimate Partner Violence: Gender, Power, and Interaction," Journal of Marital and Family Therapy 38, no. s1 (2012): 133-149. doi: 10.1111/j.1752-0606.2011.00285.x