Denial runs deep in our various cultures, and seems particularly prevalent just now. Climate change deniers are turning their backs on worldwide scientific consensus. There are those who deny that well-documented events – including the Holocaust – ever happened. Some even deny that the earth is round. The human mind, it seems, has an extraordinary capacity for denial, even of the most obvious facts.
Yet there are times when this capacity is of service to us. When we’re in great pain, for example; shocked by bereavement, or an unexpected diagnosis or trauma, denial allows us to slowly, gradually come to terms with whatever has happened. Acting as a filter, a softening of the blow, it gives us space and time to assimilate the overwhelming, the unthinkable, the unbelievable. At these times, it’s a natural part of our defence mechanism. For a short while, we’re somewhat cushioned from the awful reality of whatever it is we simply don’t have the capacity to digest and integrate.
In the longer term, however, denial makes us insane. When we deny – over and over and over again – what really happened or how we really feel – we become disconnected from ourselves. Part of us – however deeply buried – knows the truth, so our denials can never be truly convincing. Whatever the denial is – yes, it was hard, but you know, it wasn’t really that big a deal or I don’t think it affected me that badly or I don’t care, she didn’t hurt me – the variants are endless – each denial sets up a dissonance within. This dissonance manifests in all sorts of ways – as anxiety, tension, physical ill-health, shutting down, a lack of tolerance towards others, self-judgement, self-blaming and self-neglect.
Some spiritual teachings seem merely to add another layer of denial, creating an even greater dissonance within us. Teachings about acceptance, forgiveness, forbearance, and no-self can all be used as ways to deny what’s actually here. Denying ourselves the space and time to feel anger, hatred, hurt, fear, envy, shame, grief, shock, or any other type of pain because we believe that we’re not supposed to feel that kind of feeling, that we should be past all of that now, or that somehow it’s indulgent or wrong, denies us the opportunity to fully investigate what’s true for us in the moment, to move from denial to facing the reality of our experience.
By definition, much of what we’ve denied isn’t pretty. A few months ago, I was being facilitated by a Living Inquiries colleague, sharing the extent of my childhood hurt. Even though I’ve spent years doing this work, it became clear that there was still a subtle denial happening. I found myself saying, I couldn’t admit that it was this bad. As the denial became apparent, I was able to be with exactly how bad it was. The facilitator gently held the space into which the denial dissolved. In each session, as we create the space in which we can be totally honest about our experience in each moment, denial is displaced by awareness. Little by little, we find ourselves emerging from the insanity of denial and into the light of acknowledgement. This is what happened. This is how it feels. This is how I am and this is who I am.
As we inquire, we discover that by denying our pain, we have also been denying our power. Becoming aware of our pain – of all that we’ve suppressed or denied – is a deeply empowering act, even when the feeling itself is powerlessness or impotence. Power lies in the acknowledging of what’s here, not in the turning away from it. When something is finally seen and allowed to be itself, it naturally transmutes or transforms. I see this in sessions with clients so often; when we finally come to whatever has been denied – a young part of ourselves, a feeling of rage, fear or grief – and give it space to be, we feel both relief and reconnection. No longer frozen in denial, our systems begin to move; we become more alive, more creative, more true to ourselves, more us. Telling the truth – and our bodies unfailingly know what the truth is – ultimately feels good, however painful it may be.
Moving out of our own state of denial enables us to empathise much more deeply with others. No longer trying to maintain our own denials (keeping up all those alibis takes a lot of work), our boundaries become healthier and our decisions saner. We are more comfortable with our own truths and naturally become less inclined to deny others theirs. We may not be able to influence the wider denials going on in our societies, the marginalising of those who are suffering the most, but we can attend to whatever we have denied in ourselves. And that, I believe, is a radical and transformative act.