My definitions and usage of various terms in the following essay (e.g. “waking up,” “leap-frogging,” “The Force”) are found in the initial essays in this blog collection. See the entries posted as Front Matter and Introduction, Waking Up and Leap-Frogging.
The Faces of Denial
A woman is involved with a man her friends don’t like. When they notice bruises and welts on her arms and face, they ask her what is going on. She replies, “Nothing. Everything’s fine.” Denial.
A child makes it clear she does not want to go away to summer camp. Her mother replies, “It’s for your own good, dear.” Denial.
A teenage boy recounts the circumstances of the motorcycle accident that left him a paraplegic in a monotone voice, as if he were talking about the weather. Denial.
A devout churchgoer speaks up frequently criticizing the immorality and sinfulness of the “heathen” in our society, smugly confident of her moral superiority. Denial.
Five highly educated New Yorkers were riding in a car at night on Long Island in 1998. Four of them saw a huge spaceship or UFO above the car, lingering for 15 to 20 minutes. The fifth man (an M.D.) reported seeing nothing at all. Denial.
The organizer of an international conference worked long and hard to get a famous speaker to give the keynote address. When the celebrity faxed a refusal, the fax somehow mysteriously disappeared, and the conference organizer forgot completely about the disappoint it contained, so all the PR materials later had to be corrected and reprinted. Denial.
The pajamas were blood-stained, and the little girl’s sheets were semen-stained, but she always insisted on holding Daddy’s hand when the family went out for a walk. Denial.
A woman takes up with one man after another, all of whom turn out, over time, to be “losers.” She finally concludes “There are no good men out there.” Denial.
Harriet is a “pillar” of the local church, always active, always to be counted on when anything needs to be done, never idle for a moment, the first to volunteer for any chore or help someone in need. No one can remember a time when Harriet had a need, when someone helped her. When asked about this, Harriet assured her questioner that she was happily self-sufficient. Denial.
A marriage counselor was consulted by a couple having marital difficulties. The counselor interviewed each member of the family individually. He had the 8-year-old daughter draw pictures of her favorite dessert, a scene, things that meant a lot to her. She drew a banana split, a tree trunk being cut in half, and a road coming to a Y-shaped intersection. When he asked the little girl whether her family was happy, she replied, “Oh, yes, very.” Denial.
In the days before chemical anesthesia, the British physician James Esdaile, while stationed in India, discovered that hypnosis could be used to anesthetize patients for surgery. At the time in Europe 95% of surgery patients died from the pain of the operation. Esdaile’s hypnotized patients reported feeling no pain, and 95% of them survived their operations. When Esdaile returned to London, he put on a demonstration of surgery under hypnosis for his colleagues at the British College of Physicians and Surgeons, amputating a gangrenous leg while the patient lay smiling. The doctors watched and then declared that Esdaile was fooling them, having hired a rogue to lie there and pretend to feel no pain. Denial.
Dean Ornish (the developer of a non-fat diet system for reversing heart disease) and Robert Atkins (the developer of a widely-used non-carbohydrate diet) had a discussion recently, sponsored by Natural Health magazine. Atkins said that he has gotten reports from 60,000 patients reporting success with his diet. Ornish replied that these results were merely “anecdotal” and meant nothing, because no controlled studies were done to back them up. Denial.
Denial, thy face is everywhere! The above are just a dozen examples illustrating the truth of the many faces of denial. Denial is much more than a river in Egypt. It is a core element of our lives, but, because it is generally an unconscious process, this may not be obvious. In this essay, I’m going to examine why we use denial, the various forms it takes, the effects it has, and how to get wise to it. Then I will consider the positive version of denial, which is a key component of true happiness and spiritual fulfillment. But first, let’s look at the meaning and derivation of the word.
Meanings and Etymology of “Denial”
Our English word came to us from Latin, through the Old French denier. The Latin root is denegare, “to negate.” The prefix “de-“ intensifies the negation. So denial is “the act of saying something is not true; or declaring that one does not hold or accept something.” It also means a disowning or refusal to acknowledge something, a refusal to accept things as they are. In the form of self-denial, it means a “doing without things that one wants.”
“Denial” also has a technical meaning, used in psychology, and this specialized meaning will be our focus. To therapists, analysts and others in the helping professions, “denial” is used to describe an extreme form of self-protection, or a refusal to acknowledge the existence of an external source of anxiety. Students of learning theory recognize denial as a central element of the “closed belief system,” with serious implications for perception and learning. Denial is also one form of defense mechanism, and a core component of most others, like projection, rationalization, reaction formation, displacement, etc.
Speaking of “defense mechanisms” provokes the question why use denial? What purpose does it serve? “Defense” suggests its purpose: protection. Defense mechanisms are cognitive devices for tampering with reality to avoid pain. They are “self-deceits” ways we keep secrets from ourselves, part of what Freud called the “ostrich policy” found in all people.
We use denial and the other defense mechanisms to avoid psychic pain or anxiety. These mechanisms are the psychic version of an endorphin: an analgesic that helps us tune out reality and lessen the awareness of pain. Thanks to denial and its related devices, we protect our self-image, avoid humiliation, and, most of all, avoid change, with the sacrifices, threats and challenges change implies.
Most people associate things like denial and the other defense mechanisms with neurotics and “sick” people, but they are used all the time, by all of us. Consider the vignettes above: Scientists’ respond to psi phenomena, or to anything that they cannot explain within the limited paradigm of scientism with denial. Rationalists will respond with denial when presented with the data from astrology (which they dismiss as “bogus,” having made no attempt at all to understand this valuable symbol system found in every culture and used for thousands of years). Alcoholics and their circle of friends and family usually live in denial for years, and a major part of the 12-step programs is designed to get people out of denial. And there is R.D. Laing’s “Game of the Happy Family,” which illustrates how rich in denial are the lives of those in dysfunctional families. Lest you congratulate yourself that you are not a scientist, a rationalist, an alcoholic, a friend of one, or a member of a dysfunctional family, consider this: Jung believed that all Westerners use denial, because of the fear of the unconscious that is pervasive in Western culture. So, unless you are from some remote backwater part of the planet, cut off from the influence of modern science, you probably share the mind-set that fosters denial in some form.
Forms of Denial
Which brings us to the next topic: how denial shows up in life. The examples at the beginning of this essay illustrate how it can look. The abused woman who denies anything is wrong shows the face of denial called “disavowal,” often found in recurring interpersonal problems, or “stormy” relationships, where the denier experiences frustration in dealings with others, or the inability to form stable, satisfying unions. Co-dependency is another element here: getting into relationships that are abusive, and staying, despite the maltreatment that is obvious to others.
The second example, of the child being told that going to camp is for his own good, illustrates the denial at the core of the defense mechanism of “rationalization.” Here the mother is denying her own true motives by covering them with a cloak of reasonableness. This is a “slick” form of denial, especially common with intellectuals who are quick-witted and skillful with words. Certain phrases are characteristic in this version of denial, e.g. “It’s for your own good.” “This hurts me more than it hurts you.” Occasionally, the denial at the root of rationalization is glaringly obvious, e.g. the military’s claim “We had to destroy the village to save it.” Hello??
The teenage boy recalling his accident with no visible emotion reflects the flattening of affect, or emotional numbness that often signals denial. Sometimes feelings are there, but at a reduced level of intensity, and sometimes the emotions appropriate to a situation are completely absent. The person has closed down emotionally.
The pious churchgoer with the smug attitude, seeing sin everywhere outside, is projecting her own problems out, denying her own parlous spiritual condition in such a way that she will never be able to deal with it (because she can’t recognize it for what it is). Warping of accurate perception, like this, is a common form of denial.
The fifth example also illustrates how denial can hamper perception. The M.D., who prided himself on his scientific rigor and cool rationalism, was completely unable to take in any experience that did not fit into his limited belief system. Result: he missed something spectacular.
The conference organizer illustrates how synchronicity works to support our unconscious intentions. It meant a lot to the organizer to have the celebrity speaker. When the news came that the person would not be there, the fax sheet “just happened” to get lost. Then the organizer “just happened” to forget the message the fax conveyed. Memory failure, or selective amnesia—the inability to recall events or details of unpleasant things–is a very common element of denial.
The sexually-abused child manifests denial in the defense mechanism known as “reaction formation.” In this version of denial, information enters the unconscious without passing into conscious awareness; then it undergoes reversal and comes out into awareness as the opposite. The child, who was being hurt and violated by her father, had legitimate grounds to say she hated him, but the hatred got repressed and came out as the longing to be loved and protected by Daddy. Others in the family circle (especially the adult who did the laundry) also were in denial, refusing to take in the messages in the weekly wash. Their attention was dimmed. This poor ability to pay attention or to see what is really going on is a classic sign of denial.
The woman who repeatedly took up with losers illustrates the compulsive quality denial can have, as well as denial in the form of rationalization. Of course there are good men out there. She is trying to avoid facing the fact that the problems are not with the men, but within her. She is using denial to evade facing the reality that she needs to do lots of work on herself.
Harriet, into the “Martha syndrome,” illustrates the self-abuse and poor self-image that is often found with denial. Workaholism, substance abuse, co-dependent relationships, an inability to have one’s needs met, compulsions that drive people to busy-ness, to perform and achieve, as if they felt they had to “earn the right to be”—all these are ways denial can appear.
The child’s drawings for the marriage counselor are versions of the “Freudian slip” that so often will reveal denial if we are prepared to spot it. The girl was denying anything was wrong, but the counselor got at the truth through her unconscious.
The story of James Esdaile illustrates how denial can intensify when shared in a group, leading to what social psychologists call “group think.” Dean Ornish’s dismissal of the experiences of 60,000 people also illustrates how denial operates to keep otherwise intelligent people from seeing reality, because of a limited range of mental flexibility. Most of the controversy today around psi, parapsychology, and “frontier science” are forms of denial, deriving from the errors of our current paradigm of science, with its materialism, positivism, reductionism, and a protocol for research that is far too rigid.
There are other ways that denial can appear, not illustrated in the examples. These include :
· blocking through fantasy: reality or its implications are avoided by fanciful thoughts of what could be or might have been; when this goes on long enough, the denier can come to live in a dream world.
· disturbing dreams or nightmares, and sleep disturbances (insomnia, broken sleep)
Why Getting Wise to Denial Matters
OK, you say. So I’m into denial, like everybody else. So what if I think it’s a river in Egypt. What’s the big deal? The deal is that denial has consequences—mental, emotional, behavioral, interpersonal and other effects. Let’s examine some of these.
Mentally, when we are in denial, we don’t process information very well. We fail to notice important things. Our range of thinking becomes truncated. Our perceptions get restricted. We operate with blind spots, not seeing stuff that is obvious to others, or we see only on the surface, missing valuable data present at a deeper level. We can miss the context of information that gives it meaning. Denial filters the flow of what we take in mentally, so that we can’t process material quickly, or fully. Our memory is hampered, and we are not able to play the game of life, mentally, with a “full deck.” The group think that was at the root of the Bay of Pigs fiasco illustrates how otherwise intelligent people, putting their heads together over a serious issue, can get way off track because of denial.
In the realm of feelings, denial can be as hampering as it is in the realm of the mind. We might be unable to get in touch with our feelings. I know this one well: When I first began my analysis, my analyst would ask me what I was feeling at times, and the question would seem so strange, for I had no sense that I was feeling anything at all! I was truly numb, completely closed down to the realm of affect! I had spent over 30 years denying my emotional life, which had a major impact on my relationships with others, as you might imagine (more on the interpersonal implications of denial below).
In the realm of behavior, denial shows up most obviously in disavowal, statements that challenge the truth of what is clear to everyone else. Denial can also lead to a lack of spontaneity in life, as well as to behaviors that are generally ineffective responses to life events, because the fear driving the denial casts a pallor of calculation and caution over every aspect of life.
So dealing with other people becomes fraught with problems. This can show up in a general lack of empathy with others, due to the inability to get in touch with our own feelings. The related defense mechanisms that build on denial, like projection, isolation, rationalization and reaction formation, push people away, or give them the vague sense that “something’s going on there but I can’t quite figure it out.” So they mistrust, and in this way, serve to feed even more the vicious circle that is the life in denial. When we live in denial we have trouble trusting others, and so mistrust is exactly what we bring into our lives. Replaying the old tapes from childhood unconsciously, we expect hostility or disappointment or trouble from other people, and so we erect the defense mechanisms like unconscious shields, which lead other people to get uncomfortable, to mistrust, and so then to withdraw, or back off, and thus we see just what we expected to see. We feel just the rejection we expected to feel—without any sense that we brought all this on, by our unconscious denial. Scapegoating of others (i.e. using others to contain a denied aspect of oneself) is another way denial can appear in interpersonal relationships. Defensive independence, detachment from others, and projection were mentioned above, as other interpersonal relational forms that denial can take. A final problem associated with denial in dealings with people is the inability to sustain situations of vulnerability or tenderness, because of the assumed dangers associated with such emotional states.
Denial has implications for the development of character and personality. Wilhelm Reich, while he was still a follower of Freud, felt that denial was a prime force leading to the development of “character armor,” i.e. how we block off and shield ourselves from others (while also locking ourselves into rigidities). When habits of denial linger from early childhood, we are likely to grow up with a poor self-image, a deep sense of worthlessness, a tentative and transient sense of self-affirmation. In cases of harsh childhood experience, normal development gets arrested, in the phenomenon of neurosis.
What’s all this mean, in simple terms? Denial does not give us happiness. It is self-defeating, leading to frustration, partial living, a closing down of whole aspects of reality, poor physical health, and a rigidly circumscribed spiritual life. Denial, in short, is not something we want to encourage, and indeed, part of the task of humanity now, as we prepare for the coming shift of consciousness, is to get wise to this most insidious of unconscious devices.
Wising Up to Denial
How to do this? Some signs were mentioned above: strong, almost impulsive or automatic reactions to something can be a sign (but it will require quite a bit of self-discipline and attention to recognize these when they appear, because they are so habitual).
Any intense aversion or rejection of a thought or experience can be another clue, as are those Freudian slips of the tongue. But, as with strong impulsive reactions, we must be prepared to see these for what they are, rather than laugh them off, or block them from awareness.
Physical condition can offer clues: lack of energy, little interest in life, a life that is just going through the motions can signal the need to begin to examine unconscious “stuff.” Or, the opposite may be the case: a personal history of constant busy-ness, workaholism, never stopping, “Type A” behavior and the hypertension that goes along with it. Such compulsive driving can be a sign that denial is lurking in the depths.
Life itself can hold up signs, in the phenomenon of “synchronicity.” Watch for “coincidences,” like losing disturbing messages, forgetting important facts that we really don’t want to handle, or overlooking someone in our work environment that deep down we really don’t want to deal with . Such “trivial” things can be anything but trivial in helping to point out denial.
The best, most effective ways to spot denial and its kin are through long-term, supervised dreamwork and depth psychological analysis. Dreams connect us with the psychic realm, that level of being that is in touch with the unconscious. If we take a positive attitude toward it, the unconscious will respond in kind. Our dreams will show us when we are denying, and why. Likewise, a good analyst will help us be honest too. But both these ways come at a price: pain. Honesty hurts. It is not easy, or pleasant, to wise up to how we live in denial. We have to want to become aware.
This is not something for the weak. It requires conscious intent and a firm setting of the will, as well as lots of moral courage. Because we will be shown all the garbage we have “stuffed” over the years, all the things we don’t like about ourselves, and all the other ways we are fundamentally dishonest and cowardly, it takes guts to do it. Why, you might ask, would anyone want to?
For self-awareness. To live authentically, honestly, without all the lies. As long as we live in denial (in any one of its myriad forms) we are living a lie.
Another reason is to heal, to become whole. This may seem paradoxical, but it is the case that, when we summon the courage to face and deal with the pain that denial and the other defense mechanisms have masked, rather than get more pain, we see the pain in life become manageable. We discover that it’s not as bad as we feared! We come to realize our strength, that we can deal with pain, and grow through it, and come to appreciate it as a valuable part of life (because it is the way life gets our attention, so we can take up the personal work we are meant to do).
A third reason to get wise to denial is to gain true happiness, which is a spiritual condition, not a material situation tied to having toys or wealth or power or reputation. As long as we live lies, we suffer, and there is no happiness in suffering.
Deny ourselves? This is the positive version of denial I mentioned in the beginning of this essay, the form of denial that implies the refusal to gratify the ego. In this type of denial, the ego consciousness is disavowed. Jesus called this “taking up one’s cross.” It is a crucifixion, in that it is very painful, humiliating for the ego, and entails sacrifice.
Such a denial is not possible unless and until the unconscious, defensive, cowardly forms of denial are recognized, confronted and worked on. This work can be done in a number of ways—Buddhist meditation practice, Jungian analysis, some forms of yoga, artistic work, if done reflectively—but all of them require a journey into the inner depths, a confrontation with denial in all its forms, and a sacrifice of the old self-image and beliefs that we used denial to protect. In the taking, this journey opens life to the “possibility of developing a wisdom beyond tragedy,” and of enjoying “a peace and poise beyond conflict.”
Denial is not a river in Egypt. And getting wise to it is an important part of “waking up” and leap-frogging.
For Further Reading
Coco, Donna (1999), “A Woman on the Edge,” Natural Health (July/August 1999), 86-89, 142.
Colman, Arthur (1995), Up from Scapegoating: Awakening Consciousness in Groups. Wilmette IL: Chiron Publications.
Comer, Ronald (1995), Abnormal Psychology. New York: W.H. Freeman.
Cousins, Norman (1979), Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient. New York: W.W. Norton.
Friedman, M. & R.H. Rosenman (1974), Type A Behavior and Your Heart. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Goleman, Daniel (1985),Vital Lies, Simple Truths: The Psychology of Self-Deception. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Johnson, Stephen (1985), Characterological Transformation: The Hard Work Miracle. New York: W.W. Norton.
Jung, Carl (1954), “The Practice of Psychotherapy,” Collected Works, 16. New York: Pantheon Books.
_______ (1966), “The Relations between the Ego and the Unconscious,” Collected Works, 7, 2nd ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
________ (1969), “Psychology and Religion: West and East,” Collected Works, 11, 2nd ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Krippner, Stanley (1996), “Parapsychological Research in Retrospect,” Revisioning Science: Essays Toward a New Knowledge Base for Our Culture, ed. S. Mehrtens. Waterbury VT: The Potlatch Press.
May, Gerald (1982), Will & Spirit: A Contemplative Psychology. San Francisco: Harper & Row.
Rokeach, Milton (1960), The Open and Closed Mind: Investigations into the Nature of Belief Systems and Personality Systems. New York: Basic Books.
Rudhyar, Dane (1973), An Astrological Mandala: The Cycle of Transformation and Its 360 Symbols. New York: Vintage Books.
Tart, Charles (1987), Waking Up: Overcoming the Obstacles to Human Potential. Boston: Shambhala.
For those involved in depth psychological work, denial and the other defense mechanisms help to pace entry into the unconscious, acting rather as a gatekeeper. In performing this function, they protect us from moving too fast or from entering terrain that we are not ready to handle. In this way, denial can hold us safe until we are ready to move ahead, in our exploration and discovery of our inner reality. Pers. comm. L.W. Schmidt.
 This is characterized by drive, ambition, high tension levels, a chronic and continual sense of time urgency, the feeling of always having to meet deadlines, an easily-aroused hostility (well rationalized), impatience, agitation, “hurry sickness,” a preoccupation with time and keeping busy, frustration, nervousness, extraversion and social dominance. Western culture very much encourages this type of behavior, even though it is pathological in its effects on the body, mind and spirit. For a complete description, see Friedman & Rosenman (1974).
 I have a very Jungian understanding of the unconscious. Freud regarded it as something thoroughly negative, but Jung recognized it is “… completely neutral. It only becomes dangerous when our conscious attitude to it is hopelessly wrong. To the degree that we repress it, its danger increases. But the moment the patient begins to assimilate contents that were previously unconscious, its danger diminishes…. the overwhelming of the conscious mind by the unconscious is far more likely to ensue when the unconscious is excluded from life by being repressed, falsely interpreted, and depreciated…” Jung (1954), 152-153.
 Jung was quite explicit about this. People who are very old, very rigid, on the edge of psychosis, or too wounded to maintain ego strength cannot undertake this work of becoming conscious of the unconscious; Jung (1966), 203.
 Most modern people, in this time of ready-at-hand analgesics in convenient pill form, look upon pain as a “bad thing,” completely forgetting that it is our bodymind’s way of getting our attention; see Cousins (1979), 89-108.
 Jung took a very tentative view of yoga for Europeans, because too often as practiced in the West, yoga does not take students “through the darkness,” but serves to help them avoid the confrontation with “their own dark corners.” Jung felt this was evasive and “entirely meaningless and worthless.” Yoga in the East, with the spiritual intent and depth component recognized and valued by Eastern culture, will help to uncover the unconscious, but it is rare to find true Eastern yogic instruction in the West; see Jung (1969), 571.