The Wisdom of Denial

The Wisdom of Denial
Photo by Toa Heftiba / Unsplash

There's a ubiquitous tendency to cast the person in denial in the role of the fool. She has a blindspot that's apparent to everyone except her.

She has a problem that she projects onto the world. Like trying to find a "kick me" sign taped to your back, but every time you turn around, it's still behind you, out of reach and out of sight.

Denial occurs when the unconscious mind filters out information about a situation or a problem so that the conscious mind doesn't become aware of it. It then explains the problem by projecting it onto the world.

Someone complains about their partner but doesn't see that they're no prize.

Someone is in an obviously dangerous and untenable domestic situation. And makes continual excuses for the perpetrator.

Someone wants to lose weight and proclaims they do everything right, pointing to the austere diet and vigorous exercise routine. Ignoring the nightly midnight snacks.

Or one very common archetype these days - the yoga warrior with attire to match waxing Buddhism and tempeh to anyone who will listen. Who then transforms into a Dionysian sorority sister by weekend. "Namaste! Yay, rosé all day!"

It is very easy and, dare I say, dopamine inducing to point out the denial of others. It comes with a certain amount of satisfaction due to the delusion that we're in the know.

Or we may have someone close to us that we care about that cannot see the obvious, no matter how many ways we point it out.

Denial has featured strongly in my own health journey. Years ago when I was struggling the most with my physical, neurological and mental health, I was the least aware that I had an issue. I would run labs on myself only to downplay and ignore the results.

At one point my urinary lactic acid levels were three times the upper limit of the lab, the highest I'd ever seen in my practice, indicating metabolic crisis. They were twice that of a patient of mine with active cancer.

For my patients, I calmly explain their results, how they tie back to our physiology and choices. The steps we can take to proactively reverse health issues.

But for my own results, it was a simple shoulder shrug, minimize and business as usual.

So why do we do this?

I'd like to offer that this behavior is a feature rather than a bug. The unconscious mind's primary directive is to keep us safe and alive. It will withhold information from our conscious mind if it determines that it would be dangerous or fatal to become aware of it.

But we also need to remember that how the unconscious mind assesses what could be fatal is a little different than the conscious, rational mind. Usually, when we think of danger, we think of things like busy intersections or food on the cusp of its expiration with borderline odors.

But feelings of shame and unlovability, unlikely to end up on one's death certificate, are interpreted as mortal threats by the unconscious since, evolutionarily speaking, these were associated with being chucked out of the tribe, which would have been fatal.

We also may very well also have parts of our psyche frozen in time. So that actions that would be reasonable, appropriate and helpful now for us as adults may have been dangerous as a child. And yet part of our psyche is still there, as if in a time capsule, assessing levels of danger accordingly.

We may also sense that we don't currently have the capacity to handle the awareness of the situation we're in denial of. I ordered a continuous blood glucose monitor over a year ago but couldn't bring myself to open the box and figure out how to put it on. As notices that the annual subscription was ending came in, I finally put it on to discover that I'm diabetic. (Something that, of course, I couldn't be for all sorts of reasons that I had that had no direct impact on my actual glycemic control).

A year ago, still in post-concussive limbic hell, I wouldn't have been able to integrate the results of the monitor. Especially since the blood sugar issues weren't coming primarily from my diet, so figuring out what to do about it would have been particularly overwhelming for me. However now, I'm genuinely enjoying the process of tackling the issue. So many of my assumptions (based on my training) about blood sugar have been blown out of the water. It's fascinating!

There are a few keys here. Denial is by definition something that someone is unaware of. It is not a character flaw or a sign of weakness. If anything, it's an ingenious program that the unconscious runs to keep us from overloading and harming our system.

Second, if you identify that someone's denial is keeping them stuck or unsafe or hitting their head against the same old wall, my suggestion is not to focus on the denial. But rather the perception of threat and lack of resources that is triggering the need for denial as a coping strategy.

This means that rather than endlessly providing evidence of what a douche-bag that guy is that your bestie wants to marry. Or becoming infuriated at that person who complains about situations that they obviously (to you) create, the best way you can help is by providing a context of safety for that person (which is rarely achieved through criticizing, I find) and also helping them to access their strengths and capacity.

We can trust that they'll become aware of what they need to exactly when they need to. And so will you.