There’s denial and there’s being in denial

By Pat Watson Thursday May 30 2013 in Opinion
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To deny something is to either lie about it or else to say truthfully that it never happened or never existed. Being ‘in denial’, however, is a different matter; it is a psychological defence mechanism.


Psychologists use the term to identify a condition in which an individual cannot come to terms with personal behaviour or emotions that are demonstrably true, but contemplation of that ‘awful’ truth is held beyond reach and thus beyond belief.


This psychological defence mechanism usually goes hand-in-hand with the generalized societal rejection of particular aspects of human behaviour. That is why so many people who have homosexual tendencies ‘stay in the closet’, not necessarily from other people but from themselves. They have a hard time coming to terms with being homosexual because they, like so much of society, have an internal rejection of the condition. Similarly there are people who are drug addicted or who have other addictions – for example to sugar, or gambling or shopping – and carry an internal rejection of that aspect of themselves. They cannot make the step into the light of reality.


It is much more the case if an individual is keeping company with others who engage in similar behaviour. As a subculture, addicts, of whatever substance, can exist almost entirely in their own world, focused as it were on their drug of choice, and oblivious to the world at large that is often, in their perception, the source of their distress and the reason they have become dependent on substances or behaviours for relief.


Of course the rest of the world sees individuals whose lives are off the rails as a problem to society. It’s a troubling cycle.


The case of Toronto’s current mayor might offer insight into this condition of being in denial. If a person is being absolutely honest with himself, or herself, or if that person is given by divine grace a moment of self-awareness then he or she will see with clarity behaviour that is otherwise self-obscured.


But an outside force cannot, in general, penetrate psychological denial. In fact, it is often the case that when a person living with untreated substance dependence is confronted about this behaviour, such a person will launch into attacks – usually personal attacks – on any person who dares to insist the addict face the truth.


Now, there is a method for bringing awareness to an addict, commonly called an intervention, and it has been known to work. It requires that the most trusted friends and associates of the addicted person speak one by one to that person, in a confidential group meeting, each explaining how they are affected by the addictive person’s behaviour. But it has to be carefully organized and participants have to be ready for the aftermath.


In the well-known case of the late Betty Ford, wife of former U.S. president Gerald Ford, the intervention worked. But part of the success of that intervention was in part because Betty Ford was ready to hear what those who cared about her told her. Also, her family had prepared for after the intervention by making prior arrangements to get her to rehab right away.


We might consider that the angry responses of Toronto’s current mayor, being confronted daily, as he has been, by news media, might very well be the behaviour of someone in denial. Such a person could be experiencing dissonance between his own existential norm and conversely, what many consider growing evidence of a disordered life. But living in denial means an incapacity for seeing the forest for the trees. So a note of caution: continuing to bludgeon a person in denial over the head with the truth, regardless of how obvious that truth is and regardless of how destructive the individual’s behaviour can be, will likely result in deepening his denial and his intransigence.


The truth can indeed set each one of us free, however, regarding human nature, most people must come to it on their own terms. The old saying is ‘you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink’.


A note on a well-timed scandal…


The federal Conservatives may be relieved that the personal problems of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford are currently front and centre. It means less attention to matters like the recent federal court ruling that found there was fraud involved in those so-called robocalls in which a person who said he represented Elections Canada made calls to voters who had previously said they would not vote Conservative and gave those voters misinformation about polling station locations. Nevertheless, the judge ruled the political dirty tricks did not affect the outcome of the final result in six ridings in which the Conservatives won by slim margins.

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