It is a bigger truth in our lives and more common than we think. We see it being repeated so many times around us that we almost always cannot recognize or call it out. I have been lately staring at a lot of these denial tendencies and excuses being thrown around. So, let us discuss denial today, see how to recognize it, and how to call it out?
I would like to remind you, I am not a therapist or a medical professional. These are merely my observations and online research and most of it is my observation. If you feel you are dealing with denial and you need help, please seek out a professional who can guide you better.
So, what is denial? Denying a situation or the gravity of a situation to avoid having to confront it and solve it. As humans we have developed a lot of defense mechanisms to survive the trauma and stressful situations. Denial initially occurs as a defense mechanism. As per a blog article by Mayo clinic “Refusing to acknowledge that something is wrong is a way of coping with emotional conflict, stress, painful thoughts, threatening information, and anxiety. You can be in denial about anything that makes you feel vulnerable or threatens your sense of control, such as an illness, addiction, eating disorder, personal violence, financial problems, or relationship conflicts. You can be in denial about something happening to you or to someone else.”
This is sometimes helpful, when you are facing trauma or need time to process some bad news or are undergoing some sort of abuse and need time to accept this is happening to you. And normal human beings eventually move out of denial on their own and act towards improving the situation or healing themselves. But denial can start hurting you when you let it get too far, and it starts becoming your alternate reality. Especially people stuck in denial for years on end. Patterns of behavior and non-action or complaining about a big pain point in life yet refusing to do anything about it. You might notice this in your friends and family, and I am hoping you can notice this within yourself too. This is not me sitting on a high chair judging everyone, I am not perfect, and I too have some denial patterns of my own. The objective is to explore this together, identify and act on it, and if you have people in denial about serious issues, at times life-threatening issues, how to help them out.
Before you continue reading, think of the biggest pain point in your life. What is causing you misery right now? It could be a job, an illness, a relationship, anything. Good now that you have it noted, let’s move ahead.
I have taken specific scenarios as examples, denial is not limited to these, but I have observed these in most people. People stuck in abusive relationships, men and women both suffer from abusive relationships. The abuse can be verbal, mental, emotional, or physical, all of which lead to some serious denial. Couples who have been together for so long that they find comfort in the misery rather than face the unknown. It reminds me of the saying the known devil is better than the unknown.
Women with young children are especially vulnerable in abusive relationships and choose to stay in such relationships. You will be surprised that educated, financially independent women are the ones who choose to stay, so it is not just the financially dependent or uneducated lot. These women excel in their careers and are so good at supporting & advising their friends but choose to live in denial in their own relationships. Drives me to think, Why is misery so dear to us? Why is the comfort of the known so appealing and what kind of comfort is this where people accept physical violence and continue to live in denial.
You will notice that they may confide in close friends and complain about their situation, they may find someone who will listen, but they never act on any advice. Once they are done ranting, if you try giving them practical advice, you will hear 1001 reasons why they cannot act on changing their situation. What especially infuriates me is the favorite excuse of women “I have to stay for my child”. It infuriates me because they are using their children as a shield to continue living in denial. Do you really think an abusive partner can magically be the best parent? Do you think children do not understand? They watch your every move, they sense your every emotion and a child as young as 3 will know if his/her parents are fighting and if they witness violence, they are going to be emotionally scarred. You are exposing your child to mental and emotional trauma, this abusive spouse may treat your child well, but they are using the child as a bait to keep you in the relationship and they will continue using the child for selfish purposes. A person who has no compassion towards you as a human being is not fit to be a parent. Stop fooling yourself into thinking you are sacrificing yourself for your child by staying, the society has already placed mothers on a pedestal and set unrealistic expectations from them, why are you adding some more? You are not Gandhi or Mandela, showing your child that self-respect, dignity, and courage are more important than the money, house and a fancy car that your spouse may own is the raw deal of being a good mother.
Where does denial stem from? What is the raw emotion below this? It is Fear. Fear of change, fear of shame, fear of rejection from society, and at times fear of success. What will people say? People will ask questions, or what if I leave this person and end up meeting a decent person who respects me? How will I react to that? Fear of dying alone is another reason, what if I never find anyone else? What if I end up alone? Yes, this is a fear and this thought does cross my mind as well and am sure many of you have had this thought. But some people just cannot be alone, they cannot stay alone, they cannot fall asleep if they are alone at home, their fear of being alone is so high that they are willing to accept the denial and continue watering a dead plant. When you walk out of an abusive relationship, yes, it is a possibility you may not find another person, but that is not a reason to continue to stifle your soul. Start enjoying your own company, it is difficult in the beginning but soon you will discover you are an interesting person. If you do not enjoy your own company, how do you expect someone else to enjoy your company? I have traveled to many countries as a solo traveler, and I have thoroughly enjoyed all the experiences. I made new friends, I learned new cultures, I met kind strangers, and I enjoyed nature in my own company.
The other emotion mixed with this is Hope, maybe this person will change one day, so I should stick out, he will eventually realize his mistake and love me dearly… WAKE UP, if a person can beat the crap out of you without remorse he will never change, if a person can skillfully manipulate you and leave you feeling worthless & unvalued every time, they will not magically change.
There is a fine line between forgiveness and denial. Janet Rebhan
Think about this quote, are you acting on the virtue of forgiveness or using it as a mask for denial.
Going beyond the fears that hold you back is life. If we let our fears paralyze us, we will stop living. No one solution fits all and walking out may not be an option right now for you, and I totally understand. Seek help, confide in people but be ready to follow their advice, if you are in a grave situation and fear for your life or sanity, seek out professional help, seek out a therapist or a lawyer and weigh your options, start setting aside some money that your partner is not aware of, have a plan of escape if things escalate, identify a safe place your partner will not reach and stock some essentials there, it could be a friend your partner doesn’t know about.
Plan for working on the situation one step at a time but stop living in denial. Stop accepting the abuse, stop normalizing the abuse. I know a few brave women who have taken bold steps, these are single working mothers who are slogging day and night to improve their situation. I call them brave because they had the guts to call a dead cat, a dead cat, no more denial. They have risen above their fears. I have heard another excuse, it is easier for people in the US than in India, society is to blame. Trust me it is not easier because it is the US, the questions of society will never change. Some of these women even have parents who are in denial, their daughter needs to be in a perfect marriage for society so they downplay their own daughter’s misery and pain. These brave women have no support from their own parents, it’s crushing but these women are putting up brave smiles for their kids and eventually they will rise like the phoenix. Proud that they had self-respect, they chose the right path for themselves and their children. Again, I will reiterate, there is no one solution fits all, walking out may not be an option for all, but having an honest conversation with yourself, whether you are a woman or a man caught in a toxic relationship is imperative.
Moving now to some lighter examples, the same applies to a job or a passion project. If that job makes you unhappy, grumpy, sad, or depressed please find another job or just quit. Staying there for years on end will manifest lower back pain, neck pain, sciatica any kind of illness where your body rebels against the misery. If you are passionate about photography, then only buying expensive cameras and lenses is not enough. You will need to make time for the course, make time for clicking those pics and photoshopping them, and make it a priority, stop blaming the world for not letting you be a great photographer. If you are blaming the world for your failure, look again, maybe photography is not something you are passionate about and you are sticking onto it out of fear of ridicule. Just be honest, if it is not something that motivates you, sell your equipment and find a new passion.
Working your way out of denial has nothing to do with Will power, that word has been misused I feel. Dig deep and find the real reason behind the procrastination and once you face that all your excuses will fall away and you will not need will power, your heart’s passion will fuel you.
Nobody is perfect, and you are the best judge of your situation and your life. Learn to own up to it. Most of these fears are monsters of our imagination and the reality might be a lot more encouraging.
Let us take another example, this time romance, how many of you singles out there, at this moment have a huge crush on someone? And the other person has no clue? You may have known this person through work or as acquaintances or common friends or neighbors, you may have known them for months and you have kind of dropped signals that you like them. Now how many excuses do you have ready for not asking them out on a date? Age does not matter, you maybe 18 or 68, yet you will have innovative excuses lined up as you are reading this. Fear of rejection is a big scary fear, I agree, but your denial of these feelings will end up costing you a prospective relationship. Your friends know you have genuine feelings for someone, and they may be telling you to go ahead and ask this person out, but you give a bucket load of excuses to your friends and convince yourself that non-action is the way to go. Let us see some practical ways of thinking that can help you, ask yourself what are the various ways this could play out? What is the best outcome and what is the worst that can happen?
Scenario 1. This person might turn down your date, no big deal, respect their choice, respect yourself to know it is not your fault, and walk away. Feel bad for a few days and then move on.
Scenario 2. This person agrees to go on a date, but you realize by the end of it that they are not as smart as they look and your illusion of a crush is literally crushed, ha ha, been there done that, some people are attractive until they open their mouth, then you wish they had never spoken. No big deal, politely tell them this won’t work out, and move on.
Scenario 3. Both of you enjoy the conversations and the date goes well. You start seeing each other, few months or a year down the line for some reason, this doesn’t work out. That is absolutely alright, you would have learned a lot about yourself through this relationship than any book can teach. Process your grief and move on.
Scenario 4: the best case one, you both realize that you are perfect for each other after a host of conversations both of you know you have found the one and you can progress with this new partner
How much importance does your fear of rejection have now? If your subconscious is nudging you to ask this person out, please act on it. One disclaimer though do not keep conditions that this should work out. If you lay out a few scenarios, be prepared for any of these to play out, and be mature enough to accept them all. Balancing your expectations while holding onto hope is a tight rope walk and that is what maturity is all about. It is an acquired life skill, life is never a straight-line trending upwards. Situations we cannot phantom occur overnight, we all are living this with the lockdown, who would have imagined waking up in this new reality but we did. Humans are extremely adaptive creatures, trust your instincts you will survive, we cannot be prepared for everything, but this exercise of playing out scenarios in your head for any situation helps a lot to curb the fears.
Balancing your expectations while holding onto hope is a tight rope walk and that is what maturity is all about. Pooja Damle
Now how to deal with a friend or family going through denial. Take stock of their situation, if they are in the early stages of denial, be patient listeners and they will eventually come to their own conclusions and take action. But if you notice for years and years, they are using excuses and using you only to vent frustration, there are two things you can do, but be prepared you may lose the relationship.
Because this friend is not going to like when you hold up the mirror, so be gentle yet firm. Listen to their usual rant, then slowly start introducing practical steps, they will immediately launch their laundry list of excuses, patiently shoot down the excuses one at a time. It may take several conversations but the nudging will bring in a ray of hope. But this demands a lot of investment from your end and be prepared that they will come full circle and still choose to live in denial, do not get frustrated. I know it is easier said than done, I have been driven up the wall so many times with such people. Persistence is the key.
If you feel you do not have the time or resources to help them this way, if they are draining your energy and leave you feeling frustrated, step back, and be practical. You cannot wake a person who is pretending to be asleep. Understand that personal karma cannot be shared, you may want to help them desperately, but you cannot risk being pulled down. Accept the fact that this person will have to fend for themselves, you cannot be their venting space anymore. Try putting down timelines or boundaries, this may not work as I have observed, you can be as raw and to the face to them, but they have been living in denial for so long that, after a week, they will call you and talk about the same stuff, ignoring the last raw conversation completely. Do yourself a favor and step back, continue being a good friend from a distance and pray for them. If they ask you for advice, point them to a professional therapist, that is the best thing to do.
Everyone is on their life journey and we are not meant to help everyone, it must be destined. I hope this article has sparked a bit of contemplation, this subject is too vast to cover in one article and too big to delve into all the examples. Sit down and have that honest conversation with yourself, are you procrastinating due to patterns of denial? If so, what is the base emotion or fear? Is the fear as big as you are painting it to be? What can be the possible outcomes if you decide to step out of this? What is the next right step for you? Do you need to ask for help? Trust me your emotional intelligence knows a lot more and you will find your answers. Evolving ourselves to a higher version is the ultimate goal, it is not about winning or losing, it is beyond the usual parameters of success and failure.