In Denial Part I: The Cost of Avoiding Reality, I discussed what healthy and unhealthy denial is and explored the reasons why unhealthy denial develops. We also talked about the role and contribution of shame contributing to unhealthy denial. In this segment, we want to further explore how unhealthy denial becomes harmful to self and others.
What are abusive forms of denial?
When an individual begins to project and blame others and refuses to consider their part and responsibility in any situation, the denial becomes abusive. This usually occurs unconsciously. Overt or not, this damages other people’s feelings, realities, and well-being. Gaslighting, for example, is a form of denial that causes others to question their experiences and feel crazy.
Maybe you said something hurtful to your friend and then insisted you were “just kidding” when they told you how it impacted them. You might have cheated on your spouse, then blamed your spouse when confronted with evidence. Perhaps you told your child it was his/her fault that you became upset and raged at him/her. Did you keep important information from your best friend to save her feelings? Despite the circumstance, there are countless ways denial can affect our relationship with others and how we behave toward them.
Joking can be a common form of avoiding accountability for saying hurtful things. They’re not laughing with you.
Dismissing benefits you, not them.
I like to believe most of these processes are unconscious. The behavior becomes purposeful when someone brings it to the attention of the perpetrator and they choose to dismiss or minimize the problem. Sadly, it does happen purposefully when predators overtly cover up their tracks with lies, projection, chronic denial, blame, and constant rationalizing. It’s unconscious until someone brings it to the perpetrator’s attention and shares how it negatively impacts them, and that offender refuses to consider their part. That’s where it crosses the line over into abuse. Frequently, this abuse takes the form of belittling, disparaging, gossiping, and degrading the character of the person who informed them of a problem.
You are responsible for your behavior and reactions. People certainly influence us, but we choose how to react or respond. I move my clients from being reactionary to becoming responsive, conscious actors in their life roles. We can all witness one event and determine 100 different ways to interpret that event. A death can be a relief for one person, and completely devastating to another.
When is denial self-sabotaging?
Denial can be unconscious, and unhealthy denial is inherently self-sabotaging. Why is that, and how can you identify it?
Chronic avoidance of accountability is a red flag that denial has become self-sabotaging. Think of alcoholics who use excuses when confronted about their drinking. When confronted, common responses are:
“I’m not as bad as THAT guy.”
“I haven’t gotten a DUI.”
“I still have a job/house/spouse/money.”
“Alcoholics can’t control their drinking. I can stop anytime I want.”
Instead of considering there might be truth, those in denial will continue to disregard the concerns of others despite the costs.
Walter E. Jacobson‘s 2014 article in Huffpost discusses this very topic. Denial becomes self-sabotage when it becomes the unavoidable elephant in the room. As he states, “By denying there’s a problem we don’t have to feel bad about the fact that there’s a problem.”
When you use denial as a protective defense against negative feelings states, instead of recognizing the problem, you enter into self-sabotaging levels of denial.
Jacobson goes on to further the levels of self-sabotaging denial in great detail. He defines it as denial which crosses over into blame, victimhood, finger-pointing, and purposeful reputation damage to others that brings to attention the things that were not addressed.
Think of the children’s fable of the Emperor’s New Clothes where a charlatan “clothesmaker” tricks/gaslights an emperor into believing that the charlatan made clothes that were only visible to certain privileged/virtuous people. The emperor cannot see the clothes, but wants so badly to believe that he is one of those privileged/virtuous people that shame drives him to deny the reality that there are no clothes and goes out naked into his community “wearing” his invisible clothes. In this story, we have examples of abusive and purposeful denial and gaslighting by the charlatan and shame-driven denial which becomes self-sabotaging on the part of the emperor.
How do you know when you are in destructive levels of denial?
Pay attention to those around you. Do you find yourself defensive to the input from everyone around you? Do your family, spouse, or workmates tell you that you are affecting them negatively? Are they all seeing something you cannot see? You might be re-experiencing the same problem in several different forms. Are people distancing themselves from you?
Denial in relationships
Loss of your marriage, job, friends, and freedoms are huge signs that you might be in denial of a really big problem.
When couples fight, one spouse often blames the other. The one who brings to light issues within the couple-ship may be turned into the perpetrator while the person in defense assumes the victim role. The Karpman Triangle concept of toxic ways to relate to others reveals how unproductive this is. When you turn that on your partner, you begin a relationship-killing pattern of denial. This victimhood is a mere distraction at hand, avoids accountability, and hurts both. Deep gaslighting is traumatic. We refer to this as betrayal trauma, and it is immensely abusive.
When the gaslighting begins, the relationship is almost certainly doomed. The problem does not get solved when you attack the messenger. It only delays resolution or guarantees the death of intimacy. Continued denial will isolate you. This also includes romantic ones.
My favorite response from my family after I addressed an obvious problem was: maybe you should go see a counselor. You need medication. This blatant gaslighting manifests as denial of the existence of my concerns followed by an abusive denial of my mental competence and ability to think and feel independently. The medication also doesn’t cut the bullshit.
As it happens, I openly discuss having my own therapist and healing journey. She played an integral role in saving my life. I believe that effective therapists work through their own issues and they’re not afraid to admit it. Other people can interpret that how they wish. But if anyone chooses to use that as a weapon against me denying my sanity or competence, they don’t get to know me personally.
As for my family, I asked them to go take their own advice.
I give everyone the option to exit should they refuse to take accountability and pursue abusive denial and silencing tactics.
Sometimes I push it for them.
One should be open to forgiveness and take responsibility and make amendments to one’s own harmful behaviors. If someone chooses to remain abusive and is unwilling to work together to identify and correct the behaviors, then there is no future together and the best path is parting ways. No one should be the object of abuse.
Many levels of societal denial exist today. Racism, dehumanization, economic equality, and individual freedoms are frequently based on denial. Denial of equality, denial of ability, denial of status, etc. Fortunately, we here in the West have the ability to regularly challenge this. We fight for human rights regularly in our country. There are extremists that form in both directions on virtually every relevant issue, rigid in their beliefs about the one right way to be and denying all other viewpoints.
Many still choose to clutch their pearls rather than do the work of change.
Take Nixon’s war on drugs, for example. How effective was this?
-Someone is arrested every 25 seconds for drug possession.
-Incarceration increases substance abuse and overdose death.
-It increased racial disparity, with black defendants being six more times likely to be arrested for drug-related offenses in comparison to their white counterparts.
-The United States has spent nearly 1 trillion dollars on this war on drugs, but deaths from drug use are the worse they’ve ever been. The opioid epidemic kills 1 person every 16 minutes.
*Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2016
Societal denial in this example is present on multiple levels. It’s easier to blame it on moral defect than to actually do something about the problem, like treat it. At the time and even now, there is generalized denial that the program failed. The program and the societal structures surrounding it to this day insist that addiction is a choice and is characteristic of one who is morally defective; denying the overwhelming evidence for addiction being a disease state with physiological changes occurring that progress to completely removing the element of choice.
Media filters pose another regularly seen form of reality distortion. With constant streams of negativity and doom, people become conditioned to fear and control. They quit seeing the other parts of life. This selective withholding of certain information and highlighting other information is a form of societal denial and gaslighting by the media. Crime statistics have been collected for a long time and clearly show that we as a society are safer than we’ve ever been in the United States. Crime has had a downward trend since 1990, and this is attributed to other factors than incarceration (Stemen, 2017).
I mean, it’s so obvious that Lamb of God even made a song about it.
How do you get out of denial?
What’s getting in your way? Is it ego or shame? Finding this out is the first step.
Become an observer, and begin to detect themes. Incorporate that input from multiple sources. Be open to the possibility there are elements of truth to everyone’s feedback, even if it is not all relevant. There are typically pieces of reality in everyone’s related experiences. When you start seeing negative themes in the feedback, you are due for some reflection and self-scrutiny.
And, remind yourself that you are human. Everyone encounters difficult periods in life. On average, almost everyone will experience diagnosable disorders at least once. This just may be your time. It does not hurt to get help. In fact, it just might save your life.
1. Costa, R.M. (2017). Denial (Defense Mechanism). In: Zeigler-Hill, V., Shackelford, T. (eds) Encyclopedia of Personality and Individual Differences. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-28099-8_1373-1
2. Rinn, W. Desai, N.; Rosenblatt, H; Gastfriend, D. “Addiction Denial and Cognitive Dysfunction: A Preliminary Investigation.” Neuropsychiatry and Neurosciences. Published Online: 1 Feb 2002. https://doi.org/10.1176/jnp.14.1.52
3. Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health. 2023 The Neurobiology of Substance Use, Misuse, and Addiction. Executive Summary:The Surgeon General’s Report. https://addiction.surgeongeneral.gov/executive-summary/report/neurobiology-substance-use-misuse-and-addiction#:~:text=Every%20substance%20has%20slightly%20different,transmit%20messages%20between%20nerve%20cells.
4. Jacobsen, W. The Self-Sabotaging Behavior of Denial. 2014; Huffpost. accessed from: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/the-selfsabotaging-behavi_b_4925855
5. Bureau of Justice Statistics, Probation and Parole in the United States, 2016 NCJ 251148 (U.S. Department of Justice, 2018), p.3 table 1, p.17 table 4, p.24 table 8, available at https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/ppus16.pdf.
6. Don Stemen, “The Prison Paradox: More Incarceration Will Not Make Us Safer” (New York: Vera Institute of Justice, 2017), available at https://www.vera.org/publications/for-the-record-prison-paradox-incarceration-not-safer.