“I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.” James Baldwin
There is probably no more vexing strategy to meet needs than denial. This is because, as you may imagine we don’t usually know when we’re in it, when we are denying our pain, or our actions, or our thoughts. The need beneath denial is usually protection from harm or pain. When denial becomes habitual or chronic, the consequences can be devastating, often requiring additional and stronger denial to endure the pain that comes with being in denial. As a result, it can be very insidious and often very difficult to break free of.
Denial can take several forms. One form is when we use thoughts to avoid recognizing or admitting to certain behaviors or truths. A deeper form is when we disassociate from the truth. This is very common when there is trauma but can also be as a result of habitual behavior.
The Swiss psychologist Carl Jung was the leading pioneer in identifying and working with disassociation. He said being “whole”, in other words being aware of our total self was more important than happiness. The modern Jungian and Buddhist David Richo writes that being fully happy is not possible until we are fully whole. This means being aware of all aspects of ourselves. But this is maybe easier said then done.
To break free of the grip of denial, we need willingness. Willingness usually requires at least some level of awareness: awareness of the pain we are in, awareness of the direction of our life, awareness of how our actions may be affecting others. I suspect if you are reading this you have some level of awareness and willingness. It only takes a little to get started.
One of the first steps in dealing with denial is to start letting go of our beliefs, especially the belief that we know everything. The faster we can let go of what psychologist John Pendregast calls limiting beliefs the quicker we can start to embrace more wholesome mental constructions. This takes courage. Our beliefs are often what give us a sense of safety and identity. Without our beliefs, who would be? But it is really about having no beliefs, although that can be appealing too, but more about replacing beliefs that cause us suffering with ones that don’t.
One of the tricks in breaking free of denial is to use projection as a teacher and guide. Projection is defined by Wikipedia from a Sigmund Freud quote as, “Psychological projection is a theory in Psychology in which humans defend themselves against their own unconscious impulses or qualities (both positive and negative) by denying their existence in themselves while attributing them to others.”
If we believe that Projection occurs, we can get to know ourselves beneath our denial by paying attention to our projections. I define a projection when our reaction to another’s behavior is disproportionate to the action itself. I use a scale of 1-10. If my reaction is over a 5 for an action that should have bothered me only at a level of 1 or 2, I can be quite sure it is projection. From there, it takes another level of willingness to accept that I also have that trait, that I do that thing whatever it might be.
When we recognize something about ourselves that we have been denying, usually after some initial discomfort, it can be feel very liberating. It’s like that struggle between this part of ourselves and our denial ends, a truce is drawn up and we can even start to love and embrace this part of ourselves that we have dissociated from for so long. But until we recognize it’s existence, it’s very hard to do the healing work needed to become reunited with this trait.
I have heard of people doing the work from the outside in, but that is rare and I believe harder. That is, let’s say we have a characteristic of one of our parents that we cannot stand in our parent and don’t see in ourselves. We can work on accepting it in our parent. If we are successful, it usually weakens the need for denial in ourselves, and we start to see it and accept it along the way. My experience however is it is more effective for most people to do the inner work first.
For almost always the parts of us that we deny, are parts that we thought were unacceptable, usually a decision we made at a very young age, but also in adulthood, and are buried deep in our subconscious.