Denial is a word that people in recovery use often. It generally refers to an addict who is denying their own increasing use and abuse of alcohol and/or drugs and its affect on their life. Or, it refers to someone around the addict who is denying the progression and impact of an addict’s escalating addiction (sometimes referred to as an enabler). The enabler’s denial allows the addict to keep using, and it denies the impact that the addict’s addiction is having on family members. Denial, in this sense, can lead to considerable dysfunction within the family system, because there is a “cover up,” an ever-growing “secret” that family members do not feel free to talk about. When a family is steeped in denial, the person who is trying to say that “the emperor has no clothes on” is generally viewed negatively by those who are not willing to see what’s really going on.
Q. When does denial become pathological?
• When it alters reality to such an extent that we lose touch with “normal.”
• When it forces others to join with us, in living our lie.
• When it’s a rewrite of reality that is far enough from the truth, that it makes us live a dishonest life on the inside or the outside.
But are there some times in which denial serves us, or helps us, at least temporarily, to cope with a situation that seems to be more than we are ready to face? Can denial also be in service of preserving our sense of self, our stability and ability to keep going without falling apart?
So what’s the difference between the kind of denial that seeks to rewrite reality, the kind that is a useful natural coping mechanism? And what about the death of a loved one? Is it denial that carries us through the first months when we still feel that the person who died isn’t really gone? Is it spirituality and a sense of contact with a world beyond what we see? Isn’t emotional numbness a natural reaction to trauma and a first stage of grief and loss? This kind of numbness is not the same as denial, as it does not involve a distortion of reality. It is a coping mechanism built into our human nature. It may contribute to a pathological form of denial if loss is not eventually accepted. But this numbness is generally in service of our survival. It can give us a chance to work through our overwhelming sense of grief toward accepting a loss and reorganizing our lives.
Not So Healthy Denial:
The kind of denial that becomes problematic is when we “rewrite” a situation or behaviors that we find disturbing because we don’t want to see or deal with what’s actually happening. It’s the endless excuses, the alcoholic in our lives, isn’t drunk again, they “simply have the flu, they are overworked, over-stressed or over-anxious and just trying to relax. What’s the big deal?” It’s when we use a sort of twisted reasoning to make someone’s behavior more palatable or manageable than it actually feels. We don’t want to connect the addict’s increasing unmanageability, or our own chronic anxiety, to living with substance abuse or process addictions. This kind of denial is complicated. It requires constant upkeep, because lots of little things that relate to what we’re denying keep cropping up in front of us, and we need to keep rewriting as we go. It’s crazy making. It makes us doubt our sense of “normal” and question what we see in front of our eyes or feel in our guts to be true.
These latter types of denial distort reality. And they put family members in a terrible bind: They feel both hurt and envious, jealous because the denier seems to have such an easy time keeping their anxiety at bay and hurt because their sense of the truth is being insulted and , well… denied. Children, in their desperation to belong and assuage their anxiety, may wind up joining their parent in their distortion of reality in order to remain close to them. At some level, they know that they risk losing their parent’s approval and love by calling things as they see them. This kind of denial becomes a subtle force that divides families, or a subtle force that creates collusion among some family members while making other family members feel left out and marginalized.
An unfortunate feature of this type of denial is that it becomes habit-forming. This type of thinking does not necessarily disappear when the addict either sobers up or leaves the picture. When spouses or family members, for example, spend years rewriting their anxious or scared feelings, that mental habit gets generalized into rewriting any aspect of life that bothers them. Or threatens their sense of who they are. Or who they need to think they are, in order to feel … safe. Or secure. Or not as insecure. Or superior. Or not as inferior. Or whatever.
Unconscious and Conscious Denial
The most unconscious form of denial is when we block our awareness to such an extent that we don’t even take in something that’s happening. On Sept. 11, for example, Susan called her boss over to witness what she was seeing from her window at work in NYC as the second plane flew straight into the second building and destroyed it. Her boss, who was standing right next to her, insisted that it was an optical illusion. He simply could not take in the reality of the situation. This kind of denial makes the people around it feel like banging the side of their head against the heel of their hand. They are essentially being told that what they are seeing right in front of them doesn’t exist. It’s crazy-making. It makes us doubt our sense of “normal” and question what we see in front of our eyes or feel in our guts to be true. This kind of denial can also be an unfortunate feature of families in which one or more people self medicate. It is this type of denial that, as a clinician, I feel the most concerned about when I encounter. And as an ACoA (adult child of an alcoholic) myself, I find the most divisive and crazy-making when I encounter it. Freeing a family of this kind of denial is a difficult but beautiful thing. Twelve-step rooms such as Al Anon do it slowly and gently. As we hear other people’s stories, our own denial becomes more obvious and the freedom we feel when we can begin to tell ourselves the truth, the emancipation from holding “secrets” is deeply freeing.
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