What Does Being “In Denial” Actually Mean?

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I was part of a discussion last week on the subject of denial. Because denial has many layers, I thought I’d dive deeper into the meaning.

Relating to someone’s inability to see the dire shape a situation or relationship in their life might be in, we’ve all heard or used the phrase “He’s/She’s just in denial.”

But what does it actually mean to be “in denial?”

Merriam-Webster’s definition of denial

Refusal to admit the truth or reality of something, refusal to acknowledge something unpleasant; And as a term of Psychology: denial is a defense mechanism in which confrontation with a personal problem or with reality is avoided by denying the existence of the problem or reality.

*This post originally appeared on our Member Site blog, where experts respond to members’ questions and concerns. To sign up for our special offer and benefit from the Allies in Recovery eLearning program, click here.

Allies in Recovery, AiR, Dominique Simon-Levine, dsl, addiction, addiction recovery, opioids, denial, deny, reality, truth, SUD, alcohol, Dunning-Kruger Effect, compassion, acceptance

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Why do we go into denial?

“Denial is a defense mechanism.”

Have you ever heard or witnessed something so terrible that your mind couldn’t absorb it as true? I have. At times, truth hit so hard or felt so horrific that my mind couldn’t immediately grasp it. Our brain has what I believe to be “shock absorbers.”

An example I will never forget: When my son was in the second grade a well-known and dearly loved teacher at his school was hit between two vehicles and killed in the school parking lot. This happened a few feet from where we were standing. It was a confusing, shocking scene. Every second seemed to slow down as the world went silent around us.

My first thoughts were that it had to be a joke, it must be some type of staged presentation. I couldn’t believe what we were seeing. I remember thinking this isn’t real, surely this isn’t real. Everyone seemed to be frozen in the moment. It was impossible to process what was happening in those first minutes.

Acceptance of a painful reality is a process.

In the following weeks when I would see other families who had witnessed it with us, inevitably the shock and sadness of that day would come up. I was astonished by a common thing most remembered; almost all who were present that day said they too experienced initial thoughts of disbelief, thinking that it wasn’t really happening.

One person after another said “I thought the cars were messing around. We didn’t think it was real. I thought it was a joke.”

It took time for everyone to grasp that something this horrible could be reality. There are times when reality is too shocking and painful to take in all at once. Especially when it’s a truth that will turn your world upside down.

In relation to having a son, daughter or other loved one possibly having a frightening addiction, alcohol problem, or substance use disorder (SUD), truth of this magnitude at first can be extremely challenging to accept. It takes time.

If it’s happening to you, be open to the truth and gentle with yourself. If it’s happening to someone you know, tread lightly and with compassion.

Turning a Blind Eye

“Everything was perfect and healthy here in Denial Land.” ~Jim Butcher

We have heard of those who “turn a blind eye” to a loved one’s destructive behavior. I’ve heard this blind eye theory pointed to many times about someone who is living in the midst of another’s addiction, deception, or betrayal. But I do not agree that having knowledge of something damaging, and not appearing to address it, means you are allowing it.

I tend to look deeper. I believe it’s possible that the person may know something is wrong, but not yet be sure what it is exactly. Maybe they’ve been made aware, but are still looking for any evidence that it’s not true. It is human to hold onto the hope that what is happening is something else, something a little less than terrible.

It’s also very possible they’re being lied to by someone they love and think they can trust, while being told they’re crazy to suspect anything. And they’re not sure what to believe.

Whatever the scenario, the acceptance of something life-shattering is gradual, it’s a journey. One that involves grief and soul searching.  People come to truth and understanding at their own pace. If a situation becomes urgent enough, our eyes might be forced open. But even still, acceptance takes time.

In the meantime, the best thing a bystander can offer is kindness and the absence of judgment.

An Honest Look in the Mirror

“Often when someone strives to be publicly awesome, they’re privately awful” ~ Dad

I recently learned about another type of denial on a Dr. Drew Pinsky podcast; this version is referred to as the Dunning-Kruger Effect. This effect occurs when someone has a blindness concerning their assessment of self.

If you’ve ever dealt with someone whose behavior was shockingly selfish, incompetent or unethical, yet they describe themselves grandiosely to be of great moral integrity; and they’re not only clueless that their behavior is off, they’re confident that it’s acceptable and justified, you likely saw the Dunning-Kruger Effect at work.

A common cause of this lack of self-realization is an injured, fragile ego. This person needs to see themselves different. Blindness to self can also develop out of the habit of justifying wrong behaviors, or masking areas of fear and shame.

Substance use can also be a cause of impaired self-perception.

(Sometimes it results from all of the above.)

Sometimes they just don’t get it

For whatever reason, one can veer unbelievably far from truth and reality with no way of knowing how to just drop it and get real. And then it becomes ingrained with what they believe.

These are instances when a person is literally unable to assess themselves realistically. They don’t get it, they can’t see it, they don’t hear it.

When dealing with this, arguing the facts does more damage than good. You will only find yourself on a fast track to frustration.

Don’t give up hope that one day they may become aware of themselves, it happens! But your well-being can’t be hinged upon it happening for someone else. Step back, be kind, set boundaries to protect your well-being and pursue your own peace of mind.

***

In our quest to see ourselves in an honest light, a great equation to follow is this one: accountability plus humility, combined with openness to truth.

“Truth is what works.” ~William James

There is nothing in this world that can’t be improved by truth combined with humility, compassion and kindness. Sometimes, this recipe will even heal the wound.

Still learning,

Annie

Yes, the family DOES have a role to play. Your stance, behavior, and choices DO make a difference. At Allies in Recovery we are absolutely convinced of this. “Tough love” is not a successful technique. Our learning platform is set up to help family members learn the techniques that will reduce conflict, build that bridge of communication, and be effective in guiding your loved one into treatment. Together we will move your loved one towards recovery. Learn more here.
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