Living in denial
We have all been gifted by existence with a mind that is capable of living in denial. This mind is formidable and has great influencing power. We have to learn to manage it for the rest of our lives.
The nature of denial
Any form of avoidance, evading, forestalling, escaping, delaying, postponing, or procrastination is denial. It is a coping mechanism of the mind when it has to face an unpleasant, disagreeable or fearful situation whose outcome it perceives to be negative or painful. The brain is designed to manage immediate threats. It is not designed to think of long-term consequences in the face of an imminent danger. It also automatically imagines the worst-case scenario. Given this structure of the mind, denial is a reality we have to contend with. We have to work consciously to manage denial. It is not a one-time job. We have to keep on dismantling this programming whenever it shows up. It is quite tenacious and persistent. We have to be equally tenacious. It can come upon us so subtly and covertly that we barely notice it. It brings along with it, its friend, false hope, to strengthen its case. Thoughts of denial will keep arising. We cannot stop them. It is driven by the most powerful force on earth — fear. But we can choose not to believe them and act upon them, with a little bit of practice.
Though denial is a defense mechanism to protect us from fear it is a false protection as the fear is simply suppressed, waiting to strike back later with greater force. Denial misleads. It postpones action until it reaches crises point. But nature has given us the option to deny as it is useful as a short-term remedy when the situation is unbearable. The immediate danger is thwarted by denial. The future can be handled later on. There is still time, so the mind tells us.
Living in denial is different from being blind to something. In denial we know the problem and its consequences while in the other case we don’t recognize the problem itself. We can be blind to some of our shortcomings as the mind may hide it from us. But even if we become aware of our shortcomings we can also be in denial of them.
Denial can happen with our full knowledge. The mind can know the consequences and continue to live in denial. Addicts know the consequences of their addiction. Yet they live in a world of denial. So powerful is the denying mind that it can carry on in the full glare of the intellect and in the brightest of minds.
Some common denials
Denial in health and relationships are the most common and has the most damaging consequences.
It is very common to deny that anything is wrong with us physically. We hesitate going to the doctor until we have completed our round of self-medication and things have gotten worse. So far my health has been good without exercise so why bother, says the denying mind. But exercising is not merely for today’s health. It is for tomorrow’s health too.
When relationships go bad it is very painful. A source of great happiness becomes a source of greater misery. To overcome the pain the mind will go into denial. It will say that it is not that serious. It will underplay the situation. Or it may say that it is a temporary phase and things will get better soon. Or it may blame the stars and wait for the bad time to pass. It will do anything to avoid a confrontation. The fear here is that the situation may become worse when people start communicating. To suffer silently seems to be a better option. But for how long is the question. Until crises time. The mind is doing its job of protecting us from present pain. It is not concerned with future pain since that threat is not immediate. We cannot fault the mind since it is acting according to its programming. We have to bring in a different kind power to play here that can counter the denial syndrome.
In close relationships, we will deny that they could have done any wrong. I know him, he could never have done this, is the language of this denial.
Denial of death
This is one denial that is deeply programmed into us. We cannot keep thinking that life is short. Life doesn’t appear short. That is why we postpone things, as there is plenty of time. To bring about a sense of urgency we cannot take the mortality route imagining that there is no time and life is short. The mind will not believe it. If it did, it will be in a state of panic. We all know we are going to die one day but that doesn’t bother us one bit. That one day is far far away, or so it seems. Trying to tamper with this universal programming may not be a good idea.
Denial of tomorrow
Live for the day. Tomorrow will take care of itself. This is an old saying. Tomorrow will indeed take care of itself but it won’t take care of us. We have to take care of tomorrow, today. We are not beings who do not have a concept of tomorrow and therefore live for the moment. Half our mind is on tomorrow. We hope for a better tomorrow as it has the potential to be better than today. Tomorrow has more influence on our lives than we realize. Live fully today but plan sufficiently for tomorrow is a better option.
Denial of negative traits
The mind denies our negative traits to protect the positive self-image we have of ourselves. No one will accept they are selfish or envious. Once denied, it is pushed under the carpet. Since the self-image is involved, the denial is bound to be strong. We need someone in this world whose voice we can trust in such matters.
Denial of potential
The mind can also deny the existence of our inner potential. A person could have the potential to become a great singer or artiste. Yet his mind may tell him he won’t make it and he will believe it. Such denials will have to be dealt with by giving the talent a try as an experiment and see how far it goes. The mind generally doesn’t mind trying out experiments. I don’t have it in me is a common denial statement. Unless we give it a try how do we know what we have and what we don’t have? Certain things take time to surface. Those who have never danced think that they can never be good dancers. Same with writing. Without writing a single page the mind will tell you that you will never be a good writer.
Denial by nations
Denial is not just an individual problem. Nations live in denial. Global warming and the looming water crises are staring us in the face. Here long-term thinking is absent as politicians are generally bothered only about the short term.
Denial has its own specialized language. That is how we can recognize it. Some common phrases are:
I am not like that. You don’t know me
Oh! Its nothing
This is not a big issue
Its ok. Don’t make a fuss
I should be alright in a couple of days
This will blow over soon
Let’s wait and see
It’s not that serious
We will deal with it when it happens
We need to discriminate whether these statements are genuine or one of denial. For the one denying, it will appear genuine. For an outsider, it may be seen as a denial.
Consequences of denial
The consequences of denial are felt long after. It could come suddenly and can be devastating. We all know of people who have been leading undisciplined lives faced with a sudden heart attack and are forced to change their lifestyle. Or relationships that lead to separation. Or a person denied a promotion because he did not develop the required skills. The denying mind will be nowhere in the picture when we have to face the music.
Strategies to manage denial
The proactive mind
When everything is going well the mind will say, why do anything. It is not proactive and preventive. It waits for a crisis to act. It has to see immediate danger, not danger on the horizon. Proactive behavior has to be cultivated consciously. We are not hard-wired for it.
The proactive mind is the perfect antidote to the denying mind. The proactive mind is a preventer rather than a troubleshooter. It anticipates. It smells trouble before it flares up. It is forward-looking. It does not allow situations to reach crises point. It works on foresight, but uses hindsight. It is possible to cultivate such a mind. It requires us to ask one question: What could go wrong? We then reject all the outlandish thoughts we get on what could go wrong and focus on the more probable ones. We are then prepared for the worst while hoping for the best. We then take action, as we don’t want a crises situation to develop. The what could go wrong technique is not negative thinking. It is troubleshooting in advance thinking. Where is the need to focus on what could go right? Corrective and proactive action is needed only on matters that could go wrong or not anticipated.
The denying mind does not wish to face reality. The way life is, is not acceptable to it. It wants life to be trouble-free. The clash between what is and what should be results in denial. When our should be’s and should not be’s are strong there will be denial of what is. The fewer should be’s we have about life the fewer denials we will have. Where there is acceptance there is no place for denial. You can deny only what is not acceptable. The reduction of should be’s comes about through contemplation and reflection on the design of life, that life’s agenda and our agenda need not be the same.
We can compare the current situation with worse situations we have encountered in the past and have successfully handled. This will give us confidence and also reduce the size of the current problem. Secondly we can compare it with the lives of people we know who have gone through more difficult times and been none the worse for it.
Keeping it alive
Once we recognize we are in denial we need to take it seriously. Not a day should go without deliberating the issue. Keeping it alive is important. The mind does not like to dwell on matters that it has denied. But by keeping it alive we lessen the fear of it. Familiarity reduces fear and thereby denial loses its bite gradually. Discussing with another person is a good option to keep the conversation alive. When the issue is exposed to awareness again and again its power keeps reducing. The mind has to be convinced that this is not an issue that can be postponed. It may not listen to itself but it may listen to wiser counsel.
Often the mind denies its own capabilities, without even trying. It is pleasantly surprised when it deals with a challenging situation successfully. The fear of failure is behind this denial. Behind the fear of failure is the self-image. Behind the self-image is other people’s opinion of us. Their opinion tells us who we are and shapes our identity. The thought of being seen as incapable by others is therefore torturous for the mind. So it underplays its own capabilities to save itself from failure. As long as the fear of failure dominates our mind we will be in denial. The mind does not see failure as a stepping-stone to success. It sees failure as a disaster. One reason failure has such a stranglehold over us is because we don’t talk enough about it. It is a taboo subject. To weaken it we have to bring it out into the open and make light of it and not give it the power it doesn’t deserve. We have given too much importance and meaning to this concept called failure. That is why it has power over us. Withdraw the importance and it will lose its hold over us. Failure needs to be spoken of as a normal occurrence, nothing extraordinary. We have to remove its sting.
Long term consequences
A very useful device in dealing with denial is to contemplate the long-term consequences of denying. The denying mind cannot see the larger picture. It is focused on averting present danger. It is out of focus. To have a balanced view we need to make it aware of long-term consequences. This has to be hammered in everyday for as long as it takes. It takes time but eventually it bears fruit. Denial is a thought, but devoid of the big picture. We cannot fight with those thoughts as they bring along a very powerful force, fear. When exposed to long-term consequences those thoughts and feelings change over time. The more long-term thoughts suffuse our mind the less power will the short-term thoughts that fuel the denying mind have. As the consequences sink in, the power of the denying mind weakens, as it has no counter to offer.
Our tendency to believe everything our mind tells us is our greatest drawback. We believe every judgement, every interpretation, every opinion, and every justification that the mind gives us as though it were the last word on the subject. The mind, which can be very persuasive and convincing, is not always our well-wisher. It follows its own inner programming which may not be supportive of us. If there is one life long practice that we can gift ourselves it is to question our own mind and ask it the basis for its judgements and opinions. It will not give you any, because it has none. But it will give you a strong feeling or impulse that what it is saying is true. It will bully you with feelings, not with arguments. We have to see through its bluff. If it argues with you then you can give counter-arguments. But when it gives you a powerful feeling or impulse you cannot counter it with a more powerful feeling. We have not been given the power to generate strong feelings at will, as it would be a dangerous power to have. That is where it seemingly scores. We don’t have a level playing field here. So we need to keep the argument alive through words, because that is all we have. Words have the power to generate feelings, but it takes time. So we need to keep the conversation with the mind going until such time the feelings of denial weaken.