When Denial Works

We tend to give denial a bad rap. Saying that someone is “in denial” is not a compliment. Telling people that you yourself are in denial is a confession. It isn’t something we brag about.

There are good reasons for this, especially among activists. It’s hard to convince anyone something must change if they’re in denial. Whatever you want to change just isn’t a problem, or maybe it doesn’t even exist. You can’t come up with plans of action that will work if you can’t look at all the moving parts. You can’t sell people on your plan unless you’re willing to accept the ins and outs of their psychology. Denial is a professional hurdle for activists.

On top of that, those of us who are skeptical or atheist activists have a certain vested–if not always properly placed–pride in seeing the world the way it is. Denial is the enemy. It doesn’t just impede our work; fighting it is our work. Sometimes, however, I think we take our antipathy for denial too far.

You can lay some of the blame for this post on Kate and Miri. Earlier today, Kate posted a link to an interesting post on keeping secrets and language use at Scientific American’s Observations blog. It suggests that our language changes when we have a big secret to keep from those around us.

I theorized that these people were likely amateurs when it comes to lying. Most people are, after all. Fiction writers, actors–there are only so many professions that involve learning to lie well, to do it artfully if not naturally. I’ve done both things, though I’ve made very little money from either, but I thought I could detect signs in the description of how lying changes communication that suggested that these secrets became central to what these secret-keepers were thinking.

These people didn’t shift their secrets offstage for the duration of their interactions as much as they worked hard at keeping other people from approaching their secrets. Of course that’s going to show!

The post also contained this paragraph.

Psychologists have long known that keeping a secret takes both a psychological and physical toll. Two competing theories sought to explain why secrets tax us. Perhaps we withdraw from our friends and family, thus losing some of the social support that keeps us healthy. Alternately, we might remain highly connected, but in a hyper-vigilant way, always monitoring to make sure that no one suspects anything is amiss. (A heightened state of arousal is also known to weigh on our health.)

This prompted some discussion about deciding which secrets, and how many, to keep. I’ll repeat here essentially what I said there.

I think it comes down to a question of how well compartmentalization works for you. If you can actually set things aside and have them stay there while you get busy with other things, keeping lots of secrets is probably fine. And it’s probably fine for those secrets that you can do that to–other people’s secrets, secrets at a distance from your daily settings. If you’re not good at that, or if you have secrets that otherwise intrude into your life a lot, then maybe you want to minimize how many of them you carry. Something that you spend that much time on is probably something you want to be able to share with at least someone.

Not said there, because I’m sure Kate already knows this, that last part is why people in confidential occupations should have someone they can tell everything. Additionally, that someone should be someone who really understands what’s going on. That could be a particularly empathetic relative or friend, but it’s usually a coworker or someone else in the same line of business. Spending that much of your time emotionally isolated will take its toll.

Then Miri posted this on her Tumblr:

A violated woman is expected to fall apart, and not just privately, either; she must disintegrate publicly, in front of friends, in front of professionals, in front of Starbucks. It satiates our craving for arena-style pathos. We want to cheer our gladiators for bravery while they hack themselves to bits in the ring. If a woman chooses not to play, but to find her own private way back, we say she’s ‘in denial.’ If we don’t see her fragment, we say that she’s not ‘dealing with it.’

—Vanessa Veselka, “The Collapsible Woman: Cultural Response to Rape and Sexual Abuse,” Bitchfest

And, in fact, forcing trauma victims to “process” what they went through by talking about it and re-remembering it has actually been shown to be bad for them.

And then I knew I needed to post something more generally about the upside of denial. Why? Because denial has been very good to me.

When I was in my early to mid-twenties, it suddenly occurred to me one day that there were three things I simply hadn’t thought about since around the time I turned seventeen. It was bizarre to me that I hadn’t thought about them, and I knew enough about “recovered memory” to stop and confirm that (1) I could externally validate that these things had happened and (2) there was nothing that would have suggested I create these memories. One was being sexually assaulted. The others were the deaths, not long separated, of two friends I’d made when all our parents insisted we go to Alateen (a support group for the children of alcoholics).

Three big, painful events, and I’d just failed to think about them for more than five years. As I sat pondering that, I then remembered why I never got much out of Alateen aside from those friends. Support groups like Alateen are (or at least were) focused on talking about your experiences and receiving sympathy and validation for those experiences and the feelings that come out of them. Only my response when it came time for me to say anything was generally a shrug. I didn’t remember most of what it was like living with my father for the first eight years of my life. I didn’t have anything to offer up to the process. I hadn’t thought about it, just like a decade or so later, I hadn’t thought about these big, presumably unforgettable events.

That isn’t to say they hadn’t affected me. I’d learned behaviors living with my father that were still with me in my early twenties. Today, I can still trace the origins of some of my behaviors to living in that situation. I’d thought about the assault and the deaths at the time, and they had an effect on my outlook. They still do. But in each case, setting those memories aside for a time had given me something, a break, a respite, time.

In the case of life after my father, I don’t think I’d gotten much out of setting memories aside, but maybe I did. Maybe cultural isolation and repeated dislocation and bullying and poverty would have been worse with those memories active. I don’t know.

I’m pretty sure setting aside those later memories was good for me. They allowed me to greet college, work, early relationships, and independence with more trust, more of a sense that some things could be permanent. My experience had told me otherwise. I was a semi-suicidal nihilist for much of my teens. Setting those memories aside made it so much easier to change that. Contrary to psychoanalytic thought, I didn’t need to examine the source of my failure to adjust to life. I simply needed to get away from it.

I spent years in denial so deep it was amnesiac. That isn’t a confession. I don’t feel bad about it. In fact, I’m quite grateful to whatever little twist of my mind was able to hold onto those memories without letting me see them until I’d managed to negate some of their effects on me.

Looking back at the experience, I think I can identify what can make that sort of denial useful. The first was its completeness. I’m not saying anyone should strive for amnesia, but the fact I was actually in denial instead of just trying to be made a huge difference. If I’d been dealing with shame from being assaulted or acute grief from the deaths, setting them aside would have simply denied me any justification for feeling the way I felt. That wasn’t the case here.

The other thing that distinguished the events I forgot was their utter finality. I couldn’t bring my friends back to life. I couldn’t stop anyone who was so determined to assault or rape me that they would drug me. Any lessons I could have learned weren’t productive. There was nothing to be changed and nothing to be gained. I lost nothing by denying those events were part of me.

Instead, I got the unvarnished good. Were my experiences rare? In duration, maybe, but plenty of people set traumatic events aside for a period of time and pick them back up later when they’re ready to deal with them.

Denial sometimes serves a purpose, even as it sometimes hinders progress. When we fight against its ability to hold up the status quo, we should remember that the problem is a misapplication of denial, not denial itself.

When Denial Works

5 thoughts on “When Denial Works

  1. 1

    This reminds me of something. I’ve heard or read somewhere before that the current approach to therapy (especially for rape victims) was possibly making things worse. I think there was also something in that about how rape victims often can go about relatively healthy lives, or that it might be damaging to treat it as something that must be regarded as irrevocably life-changing… Boy, does that paragraph deserve a “citation needed.” Anyhow, I wouldn’t want to see anyone taking stuff like what I just mentioned as an excuse to tell victims to “just get over it,” but it does seem like high time the foundations of therapy are shaken. People deserve the best help they can get, which needs better understanding than is currently available, and will probably involve closer involvement with the field of neurology. Unless I’m totally talking out of my ass. For me, detachment (if I’m using that right) serves a similar role to denial for you. I had difficulties in life that I remember well enough, but I just feel sort of unplugged, and spend my time chasing idle fancies. I feel pretty good, generally. Ignoring pain for the win!

  2. 3

    That was so painful to read and so helpful at the same time I don’t really know what to say. I only have to close my eyes to see my mother in a halo brace (screws directly into the skull, which is definitely traumatic to a seven year old) and I’ve not talked to anyone about the hallucinations I had while in a coma last year. No one needs to know that shit! What I did at the time was learn to play “Happy Birthday” on my violin, because I hoped Mom would be able to hear it. (It’s A A 1 A 3 2 if anyone else is Suzuki method.)

    I’m much happier finding out that my beloved kindergarten teacher is still alive. Seeing the friend from kindergarten and telling her who else we grew up with is also a lesbian was just an added bonus.A song I like to sing to myself is “Move Along” “To right back what is wrong, we move along.”

  3. 4

    I’m another person who’s found denial to be helpful–as Stephanie points out, particularly for things that have happened in the past that cannot be changed or really learned from. Also, in my case, for things that I don’t want to have to actively remember to conceal all the time. I see it as lying to myself to avoid having to lie (or risk revealing) to others, while avoiding the side effects outlined in the Observations article. There are times when it’s useful. For me, I also need to revisit these things periodically to see if I need to unpack them or if I can leave them boxed in the corner to collect dust.

    The Observations article focused on changes in language that occurred while the lies were still being built–during episodes of depression, or while conspiring to go to war. At some point after those secrets were revealed, subjects’ language patterns returned to normal. It’d be interesting to know whether those same people were observed to show differences in language later, while actively recalling their secrets; also, whether people who’ve managed to successfully hide a very big secret show that pattern or not. In the latter case, I would think that deniers like us would not show these patterns, whereas people who are weighed down by a secret probably would.

  4. 5

    I really like this thoughtful post a lot. In my case, following a particularly horrifying death in the family, I look back to see how little I understood of what it would take to recover from the experience. Had I known that at the time, I’m not sure I would have been able to find the strength to get through it. So the denial was like a kind of mental shock that dulled the pain, allowing it to unfold bit by bit as I began to heal. That may well have made the process take longer, but it allowed me to move forward.

    The disadvantage of the denial was that I wasn’t able to plan appropriately to reduce professional responsibilities accordingly. That’s an arena in which those suffering trauma really need the help of others more distant from the event.

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