Denial Zaps the Bad Out…Kinda
The capacity of the human mind to engage in denial is one of the most comforting and frightening aspects of living as a human being. We are overloaded with information so we must be in denial about all the “other” things to which we are not paying attention. The world is smaller and so we see images of overwhelming suffering in places far away from where we live. We have to tune out many concerns, responsibilities, and fears that tug at our emotions.
We go into denial about things for various reasons. It may be due to information overload, but it can also be a compulsion to avoid feelings of anxiety. We have this marvelous/hideous ability to block things out so that we can get on with our day and with our lives.
In some ways, obsessive worrying is the opposite of denial. We turn a problem over and over inside our head to try to solve it. Sometimes we find a solution that way and sometimes we find a solution in the opposite direction by clearing our mind of the problem. Either way, we have a certain satisfaction that we have solved a problem, figured something out, or discovered a new approach.
Some Things Just Won’t Go Away
But what happens when we encounter problems that will not go away and seem to defy all attempts at finding solutions? It can be frustrated attempts to lose weight, stop drinking, improve a relationship, or prevent angry outbursts. It can be a problem at work, a personal habit, or a relationship. It could be your child or teen who seems to know how to press your buttons and make you yell. It can be a spouse who seems to bring out the worst in you. All of these things generate a feeling that humans love to avoid: the feeling of helplessness. In fact, the feeling of being helpless to solve a problem is so unbearable that our minds create ways to zap out problems from our conscious awareness. Call it denial, suppression, living in la-la land. Call it whatever you want. We all do it.
Denial Thwarts Problem-Solving
The real problem with denial is that it makes us blind to slices of reality around us and in us that really need our attention. If a danger or a challenge repeatedly makes us feel helpless, something in us goes to work to make that problem irrelevant. If you fight with your wife every weekend, you may feel like it’s impossible to change the pattern. So your brain begins to work on ways to avoid the problem instead of ways to solve it. This could take the form of working more and being around your wife less often. Or, you could just change your expectations and begin to tune her out…until something triggers your anger again.
Yet, Denial Can Help Problem-Solving
Now, in certain extreme situations of survival denial is a great capacity because it allows us to maintain focus on just a few challenges that are necessary for survival. You have to be in denial about the company’s plans to lay people off if it keeps you from doing the very tasks that may protect your job. The soldier has to be in denial about the people he or she has just killed in order to marshal every ounce of mental focus for staying alive or completing the mission. Less dramatically, the athlete has to be in denial about physical pain in order to push to the next level of performance.
What About Selective Denial?
You would think that it would be good to have a Denial Display Panel where we could see all the ways that we are in denial and then select items for our attention. But we don’t have a master dashboard where we can sit back and see what we are doing. Nor do we want one. Consider this: if you could see at one time all the risks, dangers, regrets, and problems of your life, then you would need even more denial just to look at it. It’s extremely difficult to hold together all thoughts of real and imagined dangers.
So, there is an irony here. We need to block out awareness of many things so that we can focus, but these mental maneuvers of denial can also keep us from honestly facing a problem and dealing with it. Furthermore, we cannot bear to see all our denial without engaging in…more denial! Do you see the dilemma?
Solution: Incremental Denial-Busting Skill
Skill 1 is an emotional intelligence skill that involves being more aware of your own thoughts and feelings. Specifically, it is a skill that installs a kind of early warning system to alert us when our coping mechanisms are failing us. It is a skill that involves wisdom about one’s self. It involves the capacity to honestly look at yourself and see if there are things lurking in the darker shadows of the mind, things that may jump out and devour. If we develop the skill of self-awareness, then we can start to get a sense of which areas of our own denial need special attention. Usually, this self-awareness is progressive and incremental. The denial that used to save us from facing a problem no longer meets the sniff test of emotional well-being or healthy relationships.
A Tool for the Skill
But as with any skill, there are necessary tools to support the skill. You may be very good at throwing a football (skill), but if you have no football (the tool), then it doesn’t do much good. You may be good at hammering nails, but you need the hammer, a tool, to use the skill. Likewise, to develop the skill of understanding your own thoughts and feelings requires tools.
One of the most effective tools for sniffing out denial and working with it is Stream Journaling. Stream journaling is similar to Julia Cameron’s “Morning Pages” brand of journaling. Here’s how to do it: Use a paper notebook and pen or type in a file on your computer. For 20 minutes per day write out whatever is in your mind at the moment. Don’t stop to think, just write. The goal is get the stream of consciousness in your brain into writing. Think of it as draining your brain’s thoughts down onto the paper or file. If you find yourself stopping to think about what you are going to write next, then you haven’t yet learned the art of stream journaling. Why? Because the real benefit comes when you learn to do an end run around your internal censor that screens your thoughts. Go for raw thinking and feeling. Put it into words. Don’t worry about punctuation, spelling or what your mother would think if she read what you are writing.
Don’t worry if it’s boring. When you are starting out you may just find yourself writing about your To Do list for the day. Or, you might be whining and complaining about something. Or, ? It’s not uncommon to start this daily exercise and feel like it’s pointless–especially after you have been doing it for more than a week. Don’t worry. Keep going. Your subconscious mind is waiting to see if you are serious about this and then you will start being surprised by what you write. Your eyes might fill with tears or you might feel anxious. More often than not, you will feel a sense of relief to tap into what’s really inside you.
One important tip: Be careful to protect the privacy of your journal. Either hide it where no one can find it or password-protect the file. Don’t share what you write with friends, therapists, or anyone! It’s for you alone. If you create a safe place, the timid kitten of your subconscious might just walk into your arms from the roof.
So here is my invitation to you: Try Stream Journaling for 2-3 weeks.