Slowly your pants are getting tighter around the waist, and instead of thinking, “Gee I’ve put on some weight maybe I should do something about that”, first you buy a new pair of pants. As you put on more weight you stop looking in the mirror to avoid noticing. Eventually you stop shopping for clothes because it makes you feel so bad about yourself. This unfolding reflects the self-sabotaging effects of denial—where you ignore symptoms that something isn’t quite right and continue living your current lifestyle despite the fact that it’s causing you misery (and damaging your health!).
Denial is a refusal to believe that something exists or is true when there is evidence to the contrary. Sometimes denial acts as a self-protective barrier to emotional pain, such as while experiencing trauma. This is the body’s natural way of coping with something so challenging—a survival tactic. In psychological terms it’s a form of repression; a state that the mind creates to ban stressful thoughts and negate dealing with a serious problem.For example, if someone we care about passes away it’s common for our first thought to be no, this can’t be true. This thought process protects us from the scary and
horrible reality that we will eventually need to face. Denial in these instances can help us continue to utilise our resources to deal with the situation at hand, such as taking care of young family members and organising funeral arrangements. Over time, we move through the stage of denial, into other emotions until eventually we undertake a process of acceptance of the
great loss.At other times denial is an unhealthy coping mechanism where we engage in behaviour that is harmful to our physical and emotional wellbeing, such as ignoring mounting financial debt or problems in our marriage. Denial also occurs in relation to refusing to accept and deal with negative feelings. For example, people who engage in risky behaviours such as drug taking,
binge-drinking and smoking tend to reassure themselves that it will not harm them and that they don’t have a problem. These behaviours often cover up the real problem whether that is anxiety, depression, anger or loneliness—“helping” them forget their problems or reduce the distress associated with them.
Long-term denial such as this keeps our problems alive, and leads to long-term unhappiness, so why do we engage in it? Basically, we’re trying to protect ourselves from suffering distress by not thinking about it or pretending it didn’t happen. However, denial does not make the situation go away, nor does it solve the anxiety or distress associated with it. In fact, the distress tends to emerge in other ways via risk taking behaviour, mood disturbances and interpersonal conflict, or in some cases psychological disorders. Denial may be a short-term strategy for dealing with distress, but in the long-term it does not serve as a healthy coping tool.
Instead of relying on denial, there are more effective ways to deal with your problems and feelings. Below are five steps to help you do so.
How to Address Denial:
Examine your unhealthy habits and try to look beyond them to the underlying thoughts and feelings that may be repressed by your current behaviour. Are you avoiding an uncomfortable emotion or pain, are you bored or lonely, are you refusing to look at the truth so you don’t have to put the effort in to improve a situation?
Learn to open up to negative feelings. Yes they are uncomfortable, but those feelings will not swallow you whole! In fact by opening to them you will learn to cope more effectively with all of life. When a distressing thought or feeling associated with a situation arises, try to sit with that feeling and examine it for a moment. Try not to give into your habitual response of denial and avoidance.
Listen to your friends and family. If your loved one’s all suggest there’s a problem or are worried about you, it’s usually for a pretty good reason. Instead of brushing them off or getting angry with them, consider what they have to say.
4.BalanceAlternate your attention between dealing with the distress and living life. The healthiest way to deal with grief or any other distressing feeling is to find a balance between allowing yourself to feel the pain and taking time off from the pain. There are times when it is helpful to sit with the feeling and times it is best to take a break, get out of the house and
socialise. This can help you process unpleasant thoughts and feelings without becoming overwhelmed and bogged down by them.
Sometimes we need someone external to our usual social network to provide us with a different perspective on the situation. Get help from a psychologist, counsellor or coach. It’s the ideal environment to discover new, healthy coping strategies and be supported to implement them.Author of De-stress Your Success: Get More of What You Want with Less Time, Stress and Effort, Sacha Crouch is a business, executive and life coach who helps people create the work and lives they love. For other free lifestyle resources visit www.activ8change.com.au