Updated: Apr 4, 2020
I don't know who came up with the expression, "Denial is not a river in Egypt." I do know people usually chuckle when they hear it, even though it really isn't about something funny at all. Some of the laughter is probably the kind that signifies nervous self-recognition; and then there is the "I'm not in denial" laughter when that person is actually denying they're in denial.
Denial is not a river anywhere, but one can drown in it.
For some, it's more like energetic quicksand.
Denial is part of a cluster of related-types of compulsive, destructive defense mechanism behaviors that include blaming, lying, justification, lame excuses, and refusal to accept responsibility and be accountable for harmful actions taken, all which are tied to a lack of self-honesty and resistance to dealing up front and openly with difficult situations both within and without. (In other words, your basic lack of Ethical Intelligence stuff.) For many, these behaviors have become employed as coping mechanisms so intrinsic to how they relate to themselves and operate in the world they don't even question them. And because of the sheer numbers of people who engage in denial (or any of the above behaviors), it's pretty common for people in difficult situations to enable one another in mutual denial or hit an impasse in a conflict situation because of it – or worse.
Denial can be both a consciously chosen as well as a subconscious reaction to uncomfortable situations. It's a method of reducing internal anxiety and hoping (unrealistically) that the problem will just go away without having to deal with the increased anxiety (perceived or actual) of facing whatever the person is attempting to repress and push away deeply within the recesses of the mind. If the person doesn't have to think about it, they don't have to feel the anxiety associated with it. One can flat-out deny reality altogether; acknowledge reality but minimize the impact of it and/or the part they played; or acknowledge reality and the detrimental impact - but deny their responsibility in the matter, shifting blame over to someone or something else.
So-called "alternative facts" are a dangerous form of truth-denial intentionally employed to mess with the receiver's head and cause him or her to question reality.
The group enabling of denial is when there is a huge pink elephant or a naked emperor smack in the middle of the room that everyone knows is there (metaphorically speaking) but everyone chooses to deny its existence. The existence and enabling of denial is a key element of addictions of all kinds – from overt substance addictions, to compulsive gambling and reckless spending, as well as addictions to self-destructive shadow behaviors (approval/attention seeking, malicious gossip, petty drama, control/power, etc.).
Denial of denial is tough for a person who is engaging in this type of behavior to see because they unwaveringly (and self-delusionally) believe there is nothing wrong with any of their thoughts, choices, actions and behaviors; it's everyone else who has the problems. One step more destructive is denial referred to as DARVO, which is an acronym created by psychologist and University of Oregon professor Jennifer Freyd in her work on betrayal trauma that stands for Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender: Denying the abuse the person inflicts, then attacking the victim for attempting to make them accountable for their damaging behavior, thereby reversing the dynamic of the victim and the offender.
These abusers make life a living hell for anyone who attempts to hold them accountable or asks them to own and stop their abusive behavior. It then becomes a power game for this sort of person, who will often react by doing anything and everything, both overt and covert, to damage the person who is exposing them for who and what they are, including lying, "poor me"/victim melodrama, character assassination, mind games, and engaging others in doing deeds to harm whomever they perceive as their enemy, all to one end: to rapidly create the impression to whomever they can manipulate and convince that they (the abuser) are the wronged party, while the recipient/victim or astute observer is the one to blame.
DARVO-types are usually repeat offenders who are very skilled in their craft and can often out-wit and out-last their opponents. This is deeply-entrenched sociopathic behavior and can blindside the receiver. When it is enabled by others on the offender's side it can be psychologically devastating for the victim.
Death of a loved one is often met with denial, but it's more of a shock-related type of emotional self-protection, and along with the other stages of grief, is part of an unfolding process.
On the other hand, when coming face-to-face about a matter of individual health or behavioral consequences that can be a shock to the system, unless impending death or immediate loss is realized, resistance to change is so strong for so many that denial of the gravity of a problem can be pushed away – usually to the person's detriment. Their poor diet actually can result in obesity, heart disease, cancer or diabetes, their cigarette smoking actually can result in one of diseases printed right on the pack, their alcohol abuse actually can result in a destroyed liver – and a destroyed family, finances, relationship and career.
Where do you stand on the banks of the murky river of denial?
"Your vision will become clear only when you can look into your own heart. Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakens." – Carl Jung
Most people appear to be content to simply "go with the flow" of life, deny reality both within and without, and allow whatever comes along to influence whether they will choose to evolve ... or go down the drain. The rest of us prefer to be proactive instead of passive – and that includes embracing the adventure of diving into the depths of our entire existence and observing the impact of both our dark (yin) energies/behaviors and light (yang) energies/behaviors. If you have the self-honesty to acknowledge you may be floundering in the river of denial or are about to be sucked into the vortex of its quicksand abilities, hopefully you are also ready to transcend that pattern.
Perhaps you do want to take charge of your life and begin to consciously transcend denial and related unproductive ego-defense patterns, but you're afraid it won't work. Then the first thing you must do is to decide that you don't want to be "most people." The second thing to do is admit you might need some help in the process and then actually get help - which I deeply believe is an act of great power and a service to humanity that can inspire and empower others to do the same. Not getting help is an act of weakness, and just repetitively saying you need help but don't do anything about it is denial to yourself on a massive level, as well as hurtful toward the people you've acknowledged it to who have witnessed your harmful actions and behaviors.
Conscious awareness is much more than just having a positive attitude when facing life stressors head on. A positive attitude can even be a denial of what is actually going on in your mind and your life, whereas choosing to be Ethically Intelligent and Intentionally Conscious allows you to own what is, and then choose what you're going to do about it. Negativity isn't treated as "bad," it's simply acknowledged for the adverse effect it has upon yourself and/or others, and any impulses to self-punish (or take it out on others) are subsequently released, allowing you to consciously to own and decide whether the behavior in question is really working for you – or not. Reality isn't denied or argued against, as neither gets you anywhere. Conscious awareness skills simply help you get on with it instead of being stuck in spiraling, sleep-killing, stress-deepening rumination about what you "coulda woulda shoulda" done.
Conscious awareness skills employed as a part of our process of radically honest inner-self-inquiry and eyes-wide-open outer observation does not mean we have to like whatever we see in ourselves (or others) in the present moment; it simply means we refuse to deny or filter what we once chose to see through non-productive defense mechanisms. And when we see with the greater clarity that conscious awareness offers when we run with it full-on and fearlessly, we also do not place judgment upon ourselves (or others) for having used denial in the past to create a barrier between us and deeper truth. Instead we simply turn our attention toward being aware and conscious in the present moment, and the next one, and the next, seeing reality without denial like we chose (or were on subconscious auto-pilot) to do in the past.
Conscious awareness skills practices that are deliberate and proactive can help to identify the ingrained, destructive and unproductive thoughts, choices, actions and behaviors that keep us spinning in cycles of pain, and because we take harsh, dismissive self-judgment out of the mix and replace it with wise discernment, non-emotional observation and emotional intelligence, many people find it much easier to face themselves and just get real. Being able to embrace the fact that we are all human and therefore imperfect helps us to bring our allies of compassion, perspective taking and critical thinking skills as companions on the journey of transcendence away from our old dysfunctional patterns. The desire to run away, or fall back upon unproductive self-defense mechanisms when we are triggered by fear decreases and we are better equipped to move through the process with increasingly less resistance.
Once we get the hang of it, it can even be fun.
An unproductive and harmful underlying behavioral pattern such as denial begins building in a large number of people's lives at a very early age. Over the years they become quite astute in the practice, and it's easier to justify not looking deeply at various aspects of their lives. The biggest, most insidious lies are the ones people tell themselves. By the time they reach adulthood, most people are riddled with bad habits ranging from minor to acute. Before we can replace bad habits with good ones, we have to be willing to calmly just observe what we are actually thinking, saying and doing. This is almost impossible if you beat yourself up when you notice something about yourself you don't like. Deep core changes that will advance a person on the spiritual level are met with as much resistance as what it takes to lose excess weight or quit smoking. But resistance often takes more of our energy than acceptance and the work that follows. Paying attention and not slipping into auto-pilot is both a skill and an art that takes time and repetition to hone - and to undo the fact that many of us have learned over the years specifically to not pay attention.
On the other hand, you can choose to simply quit fighting and instead practice paying attention to when you feel yourself going in to an auto-pilot denial pattern, pull back and go down another path. Giving yourself a pat on the back for noticing when this happens will reinforce your new choices while they become stronger within your mind and brain.
As the philosopher Socrates once said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”
Practicing moment-to-moment eyes-and-heart-wide-open conscious awareness skills is often a joyful and challenging method of ongoing self-examination, and when taken with the spirit of adventure it so rightfully deserves will allow you to begin experience your life more deeply and to make choices which profoundly affect the quality of your life - and all those you come into contact with.
When you decide that denial just isn't working for you any longer, you can inspire others simply by your radical, compassionate, humane self-honesty. Teaching others the honor, dignity, humility and profound personal power that is found in a life lived with Ethical Intelligence and impeccable accountability is one of the greatest gifts you can give, simply, quietly and fearlessly. Living in this manner, where you own who you have been, and the unproductive and even harmful thoughts, choices, actions and behaviors you've engaged in, releases more energetic dead weight you can even imagine, and going forward unencumbered with these shadow patterns will make you realize it probably wasn't even as difficult as you thought it would be.
© 2020, Suzanne Matthiessen, innerevolution media. All rights reserved.