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Never underestimate the power of denial: Here’s how to counter it
December 5, 2020

Never underestimate the power of denial: Here’s how to counter it

What is the most common reaction when someone is given bad news?  “No!”  “It can’t be!”  This is denial at work.  Denial is primitive and unconscious.  It is the little child squeezing their eyes closed, hiding under the blanket, thinking that if they can’t see the monster, the monster will disappear.  It is the adult who does not ask the doctor to examine a growing sore on their skin, hoping it will go away on its own.

But, denial is also essential to survival.   None of us know what will happen to us from one moment to the next.  To feel the enormity of that uncertainty at every waking moment, though, would cause paralyzing anxiety.   And in fact some people with chronic anxiety or post-traumatic disorders are so paralyzed.   For most, though, denial attenuates our anxiety so we can carry on.  It may only give us an illusion of control but the illusion that allows us to live and love.

In these pandemic times, the illusion of control is fading fast.  And yet, some people still cling to their denial – ignoring warnings about the threat of the virus, not following safety guidelines, going to the beach, riding together on motorbikes.  It is too upsetting for them to let go of their denial

So, how do we handle such people?  How do we communicate to anyone nowadays in a way that does not create more anxiety and potentially more denial.

Communicate safety:   Think of the parable of the wind and the sun.  The wind and sun had a contest to see which one could make a man take off his overcoat.  The wind went first, clouding up the sky and blowing away.  Harder and harder the wind blew.  But the man just pulled his coat closer to him.   It was the sun’s turn.  The sun came out from behind the clouds and began to shine.  Warmer and warmer it shone until, behold, the man took off his coat.

You will never argue someone out of their denial.  If you don’t believe that please re-read the title of this piece.  Rather you must take the approach of the sun: communicate safety not fear.  Focus on what the person has control over rather than what they do not control. 

Sometimes, paradoxically, reinforcing denial helps the person feel safe enough to let go of it.  One might say, “I have to admire how fiercely you are trying to carry on with all of your usual activities amid this virus crisis and all the warnings we hear.  Wow!  What energy you have!  How do you do it?”   in response to this remark, one might find the person more willing to admit, “Well, it isn’t easy.”  And there is your opening to soften their denial.

Communicate action:  In his work with post-traumatic stress, psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk, notes that trauma is experienced in the body not just in the mind.  Hence the title of one of his books, The Body keeps the Score.   

So in helping people recuperate from trauma, movement activities can be more effective than talk.   Rather than arguing with someone who is in denial, rather than throwing more words at them, do something active.   Take a walk (using safe social distancing at this time), turn on some music and do a line dance (again at a safe distance), or an exercise video.   Then, during or after this activity, they may be more receptive to talking about their own fears and anxiety.

Communicate connection:   Anxiety is isolating.  The pandemic guidelines are isolating.  For many years mental health professionals have dealt with people who are agoraphobic – irrationally fearful of going out into public places.  Now we have a new challenge – distinguishing between a realistic fear of being in public places and an irrational fear of the same thing.  (Not to mention the challenge of handling all of the people who were previously diagnosed with agoraphobia who are now thinking, “See, I was right all along!”) 

But, if the pandemic has shown us anything, it has shown us that no one is really alone.  No one is an island.  And this is good because more often than not connection between people is a comfort.  For millennia we have drawn together for shared safety, for procreation, for economic efficiency and for spirituality.  

The person in denial is more isolated than ever.   The behaviors that they think will make them safe actually make them less safe.  So, no matter how infuriating they behave, they are actually asking for connection.  Don’t ignore them.  Let them know they are not alone. 

Communicate growth:  35 years ago, working as a psychologist in a brain injury rehabilitation center, I wrote an article for a nursing journal about how a traumatic brain injury could be viewed as a growth experience in addition to the trauma that it was.  I drew on the work of psychiatrist Viktor Frankl.   This quote, which I cited from his book The Will to Meaning, still rings true: “(there are) three principle ways in which man can find meaning in life.  The first is what he gives to the world in terms of his creations; the second is what he takes from the world in terms of his encounters and experiences; and the third is the stand he takes to his predicament in case he must face a fate which he cannot change.”

What stand will you take?  There is more than enough despair in the world.   What needs to be communicated now is how to see through the despair, to know that a crisis is also an opportunity.  Take a certificate course that you had been meaning to take.  Write that short-story you have carried around in your head for years.   Send an email to an old friend.  Pick up that guitar or paintbrush lying around your house. 

During this crisis, there is the chance to grow.  Make that opportunity come true.


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