Taking Care of You
Queens of Denial
If you think this story isn’t for you … it probably is
Ever had a friend who routinely got blind drunk at parties and insisted she was just having a good time? How about the co-worker who thinks her husband is almost never home in the evening because he’s working really, really hard?
Welcome to the wonderful world of denial – a persistent refusal to acknowledge a reality that’s painfully obvious to everyone else. Imagine a woman sitting next to a two-ton elephant and thinking that the sofa’s unusually small. Would you see her as stupid, crazy, or a bit of both? Actually, she’s neither; she needs more space, but because she’s afraid to ask for it, she’s in denial about the huge presence that’s confronting her. (As for the elephant, he probably thinks he’s just big-boned.)
Sandi Bachom, author of Denial Is Not a River in Egypt (Hazelden), says: “Denial is simply the refusal to read signals.” These signals can be anything from a skirt that suddenly won’t zip up, massive layoffs in your workplace, or an abrupt dip in your teenager’s grades.
Surprisingly, denial can be good for you when it’s a coping mechanism that helps you adjust mentally to an overwhelming situation: A cancer diagnosis, for example, or the loss of a spouse or relative. According to the Mayo Clinic, when health problems are at issue, “You may need days or weeks to fully process what’s happened. Being in denial gives you time to come to grips with the challenges that lie ahead.” That kind of denial, experts say, is temporary, normal and “adaptive” – a response that will go away once you begin to deal with your problem.
But it’s the other kind of denial --”nonadaptive” and based on a continuing, irrational fear of confronting the problem — that’s worrisome. If you keep reassuring yourself that you’re not gaining weight, that your job is yours for as long as you want it, or that your kids aren’t hanging around with the wrong crowd, you could be headed for real trouble.
One of the most damaging kinds of denial is the denial of an abusive relationship. Many physically or emotionally abused women are convinced that if they just did “everything right,” the abuse would end. These women may leave their abusers but go back to them in the belief that the relationship can be healed. Pop princess Rihanna shocked fans recently by returning to her boyfriend, R&B star Chris Brown, even after he had been indicted on charges of beating her.
Bachom says that returning to an abuser is self-destructive but not at all surprising: “Denial involves thinking that your love will overcome the situation.” Unfortunately, that’s just not true.
Family and friends of people who caught in a destructive pattern of denial may find it especially hard to accept that they can’t talk their loved one out of harmful behavior. Denial runs so deep that change has to come from within; it can’t be forced by outsiders. Whether you want someone to stop gambling, avoid alcohol, or get out of a bad relationship, experts recommend that you calmly voice your concerns and let the other person know you are available to listen whenever they want. If that doesn’t work, the Mayo Clinic experts say, leave it alone and consider getting counseling to deal with your frustration.
But the good news is that you can change yourself if you think you might be in denial. (And don’t say you’re not — not until you’ve thought about it, anyway!)
“Denial is a prison and we are the warden,” Bachom says. “We can get ourselves out.”
The Mayo Clnic recommends some practical steps:
• Write down what’s bothering you (I’m eating foods that are bad for me).
• Make a list of what can happen if you continue to ignore the problem (illness, shortened life span).
• Figure out what irrational fears you have about the issue (I’ll never like anything I eat).
• Find a support group to help you with your fears and reluctance to confront the issue.
You can even have a ritual to help you get rid of what you’ve been denying. Bachom suggests that you take a small piece of paper, write down your fear, put it in an empty coffee can, set it afire and watch it go up in smoke — literally.
Sound like too much trouble? It’s a whole lot easier than denial.