Denial is one of those things in life that can be both a blessing and a curse.
For example, after my daughter’s death, being able to push the horror of it out of my mind for a few short minutes and hours afforded me a temporary reprieve from excruciating emotional pain. Putting myself in a “grief coma” during those first few months allowed me the ability to deal with the inescapable reality that I’d never see her again. Shock and denial took the razor-sharp edge off of the unspeakable anguish I felt and helped me survive what the ancients used to call “the dark night of the soul.”
And yet, denial has a point of diminishing returns. The very thing that saves us has the power to destroy us.
At some point, hiding from, denying, repressing, running away from, and avoiding the reality of traumatic and/or challenging situations such as the death of a loved one, alcoholism or drug addiction, threats of violence, a dysfunctional and unethical CEO, an inept board of directors, or even the hidden dangers of an increasingly corrupt democracy can be treacherous. Those who neglect the reality and challenges of their situations may have to hit rock bottom and eventually be forced to take responsibility.
Denial and self-deceit can be so powerful, and people can become so deeply embedded in an alternate reality, that an intervention by family members, medical professionals, lawyers, law enforcement, or therapists is necessary. However, those who are able to break free of denial and summon the strength and courage to face the reality of their situations can slowly begin fighting their way back into life, health, happiness, and integrity.
If you find yourself, or someone you care about, camping out in denial, stuck in a rut, or putting themselves and those around them at risk, here are a few tips:
1. Do an honest self-assessment. Look around you and acknowledge how denial is creating problems at home or at work; or in your health, relationships, finances, and so on. Summon the courage you need to tell the truth.
2. Reach out to others for help and support. Accept the possibility that you really may not be able to get through this alone and tell someone you trust about what’s happening. Chances are there are good people around you who care and can help. Begin to explore your options for getting assistance from them.
3. Formulate an action plan for breaking out of your pattern of denial and dealing with the problems and challenges at hand. Share your plan with someone you trust for a reality check and fine tune it if necessary.
4. Respect the power of your denial. Your fears can become so powerful that they will seduce you back into an alternative reality where you can justify, rationalize, and make excuses for bad choices, fooling yourself into believing there’s really nothing wrong.
5. Remember the end goal. Don’t lose sight of whatever it is that makes facing your situation worth the effort. And don’t lose hope. Whether it’s the love of your family, job, health/well-being, or faith, make the sacrifice. It’s worth it, even when it doesn’t feel that way and you want to just give up.
6. Practice self-compassion. Put self-care practices such as kindness, patience, forgiveness, understanding, encouragement, rest, rejuvenation, and redemption into play as you transition from avoidance to dealing with life’s challenges.
7. Be a warrior. A healthy dose of denial can help you cope with an overwhelming situation while you search for the strength to fight your way back into life. But remember, it’s not a long-term solution. Live one breath, one day at a time; make good choices; practice self-care; build resilience; and slowly become the better, stronger version of yourself.
Learn to recognize the presence and power of denial, especially during life’s tough times. Catch yourself turning away from the painful or uncomfortable sides of life. Sure, if you could simply avoid these daunting challenges and losses, or pretend they don’t exist, you might. Adjusting to change, navigating life’s transitions, and overcoming unwelcome adversity can be extremely difficult. But when you seek extended refuge in denial, the debt eventually comes due. You reach a point of diminishing returns, get stuck, and stagnate, rather than move forward.
Hard as it can be, we’re all better off dealing with life. Take a deep breath, assure yourself that you’ll find a way to address whatever challenges are presenting themselves, surround yourself with loving support, get the help you need, and live forward courageously. It’s in your DNA and resilient spirit to do so.