The Many Faces of Denial

The Many Faces of Denial

covering eyes


Most of the time I’ve spent on my healing journey (ongoing) was about breaking through denial. Or more accurately having my ego broken. A working definition of the ego is that it is denial in the form of a personality. We build it so that we don’t have to see and feel things as they really are. It’s possible that I’m exceptionally defended against reality, but in my experience denial is a tough nut to crack for most of us. After all, we used it as a front line defence to control a reality that was too much to bear. It’s our defence contractor, our personal DEFCOM system.  As far as it is concerned we’re insane to think we can manage without it. [spacer height=”20px”]

When our lived experience is emotionally (or physically) unbearable we do our best to banish these catastrophic experiences from consciousness. But they get lodged in our bodies, nervous systems, and minds to reappear later as symptoms. Naturally, when we try to make sense of this kind of trauma as children, we both try to adjust reality, (painful) and adjust to reality (more painful), in a way that enables us to survive. We package these “adjustments” as conclusions about the world and self, in response to mistreatment. I call these Core Unconscious Beliefs (CUBs). They are negative self-beliefs, like I’m bad, it’s my fault, and I should be more, along with beliefs about the world, such as “it is not safe out there, I must be vigilant.” The CUBs were meant to serve as temporary life rafts to get us through the storm. But they become our personal mythology, a collection of stories we generated a long time ago, but which we mistake for Truth itself. [spacer height=”20px”]

When we are infants, toddlers, and young children our conclusions about the “world” are identical with how our parents treated us. We project this treatment out onto the world. We will expect to be treated as adults how we were treated as children. Which is great if we were treated well, but not so great if we were shamed and abused. As adults, the scenery may change  ( relationships, situations at work, spiritual community etc.) but we end up interpreting our experience of it through the conclusions we reached as children. The interpretation lands us back in same feelings and sense-making that we came to because of trauma. It’s rinse and repeat, until we consciously attend to the karmic knots that land us back in suffering. [spacer height=”20px”]

Denial is hydra-like. Cut its head off and it grows another one. The most common form is flat-out repression. We banish the insult, whether physical, sexual, and/or emotional to somewhere outside conscious awareness, so that we have no memory of it. Thank god for the ability to forget.  It enabled us to survive intolerable family situations. Unfortunately, as Freud discovered, over a century ago now, repression manifests as symptoms. He called it conversion hysteria, where all manner of abuse showed up as physical dis-ease, phobias, compulsions, anxiety, repetitive relationship patterns, etc.  [spacer height=”20px”]

But even if we remember the terrible things that we endured, we make mental adjustments, lesser forms of denial, to ease the pain. A partial list includes: [spacer height=”20px”]

“I had it coming”. If my parents beat me, it was for good reason. It couldn’t be their fault because then I’m in the care of monsters and I’m truly pooched. But if it’s my fault I have more control. I can figure out what it is they want from me and deliver it. This delivery system becomes “me”. Except it’s not. For a fine depiction of this, circle back and watch Good Will Hunting. The scene in which the therapist finally gets through to Will that his father’s beatings weren’t his fault remains one of the most powerful depictions of breaking through denial. [spacer height=”20px”]

“It wasn’t so bad” which goes along with “Others had it worse”. There is some small comfort knowing that Johny down the street, or refugees from Afghanistan, had it worse than me. But our nervous system doesn’t have a rating system. I remember seeing the Swedish Film, My Life As a Dog, depicting this form of denial brilliantly. A twelve year old boy is on the receiving end of a lot of bad luck and mistreatment (mom dies, dog dies, he’s beat up, and treated badly by a series of characters). The film shows him imagining scenarios in which somebody, somewhere, had it worse than him. It’s poignant watching a young child try to make sense of a world that is hurting him. (Spoiler alert: it all ends well). [spacer height=”20px”]

“Deep down they loved me”. This too is a heartbreaker. You can feel the desperation of a little kid having to make shit up. The unbearable truth is that when we’re being emotionally, physically, or sexually abused, there is no love. Not a shred. There is hate and there is indifference and there is hostility.  I’m not saying that’s the whole story. Perhaps there were other times (hopefully) when we experienced something close to tenderness and affection. But if so, the truth, is closer to: s/he hates me and then at other times s/he seems to care. Which is it? What did I do to warrant the catastrophic rage?  I’m deeply confused. The hateful experience it typically traumatic enough to set me up for a lifetime of questioning whether I am loveable, and if I do experience love, then my nervous system is on high alert waiting for the boom to be lowered. Life is lived at the end of a yo-yo. You manage to find someone as an adult who repeats the pattern, I love you, I hurt you.  Same old story. Same confusion. [spacer height=”20px”]

Another one: “My mother was so proud of me. She was always showing me off to the neighbours”. Which is fine, if it’s actually about you. Which it rarely is. It’s about her. It explains why I feel so unseen, as if “I” don’t actually exist.  Being raised by a narcissistic parent is confusing as hell because this kind of parent performs the prescribed role of parent exceptionally well, at least to the neighbours. But dig deeper and you’ll discover that the narcissist can only take. Their life project consists of filling up the bottomless hole in their soul because of their own narcissistic parents. You, the child, are filler. You could spend the rest of your life hoping that this time s/he will surely see me as a distinct human being with desires of my own, but nope, it never happens. When we finally give up hope of this ever happening healing can begin. [spacer height=”20px”]

“I don’t matter”. In truth any negative belief we formed about ourselves (CUB) is a form of denial. I am bad; I am worthless; I am unloveable; I am helpless; I am hopeless; I am deeply flawed; I am inadequate to the demands of life, etc. are all forms of redirecting our rage and frustration at not being loved away from those upon whom our lives depended, toward ourselves.[spacer height=”20px”]

Self-loathing then is a form of denial of the truth that our parents were inadequate. If we gave up self-loathing we might have to accept the truth that we actually hate them, a feeling that is terrifying as a child. We prefer to direct the rage at ourselves because it gives us more control. If they are inadequate we’re screwed. But if it’s on me, then I can figure out what they want me to be and deliver an academy award performance. Plus, there’s the added bonus that I don’t have to follow through with my secret plan to kill them. This is the origin story of ego. [spacer height=”20px”]

Blame is another hydra head. We know we are in denial when we chronically survey the world, and our intimate relationships looking for somebody, anybody, to blame for our misery. Their slightest misstep, let alone egregious mistreatment, will serve to confirm that they have irredeemably failed us . No, we tell ourselves, the whole world has failed us. It’s all a massive set up to hurt us. This failure can be located anywhere but in the actual humans who failed to love us when it mattered most.[spacer height=”20px”]

We generate scenarios in our life that serve to validate the conclusion we came to along time ago, that “the world” is untrustworthy. I’m not saying that adult people in our real grown up don’t fuck up and hurt us. But we can deal with that by letting them know, warning them if it happens again it will be over, and carrying on with our life.  But when we chronically find ourselves disappointed by every intimate relationship, the common denominator in all of these experiences is ourselves. This is when it’s time to stop blaming everybody else, and deal with the foundational heartbreak that set us up for all the drama. This isn’t so much blaming parents or whomever, as it is simply agreeing to undergo the suffering we couldn’t bear early in our life so that we can stop blaming everybody else. [spacer height=”20px”]

You hear lots in new age circles about radical acceptance of reality as it is not as we wish it would be. And I agree that this is a formula that ends unnecessary suffering. But this acceptance must include the reality that we couldn’t bear as children, the milieux of lovelessness that keeps us locked in Groundhog Day, (except in the movie, there were incremental changes). If we try to improve our lives through spiritual practices like meditation, or using positive affirmations, without having broken through denial, the karmic knot will never be untied. We may bliss out at the yoga studio, but at home with our intimate other, nothing has changed. (Yes, yoga, meditation and other practices are helpful to settle our nervous systems and connect us to more subtle dimensions of reality). [spacer height=”20px”]

The socio-political implications of psychological denial are profound. If we cannot resolve the lovelessness, the domination games, and yes, even the evil that we endured as children, we will either a) see abuse and the evils of humanity everywhere in the world—the paranoid worldview, or b) see abuse and the evils of humanity nowhere in the world. It’s all love and light. In what amounts to spiritual bypassing we refuse to believe that there are predators and leaders who are happy to use political systems and corporate leverage to control us. [spacer height=”20px”]

Both are the result of psychological denial and if I were to hazard a guess at which one is more prevalent I’d go with b). While the legacy media is fixated on “conspiracy theorists” ( the a) category) there are many more pollyannas ( b) ) who confer trust to authorities who are actually very willing to enact a control agenda. The world, full of light though it is, is darker than most of us care to believe, due in large part to millenia of traumatized children who grow up, and in the case of the paranoid personality, seek to take absolute control over a world that they are sure is out to hurt them; or in the case of the pollyanna personality and the spiritual by-passer seek to obliterate their own unbearable past by willfully ignoring and minimizing the depths of darkness to which human beings can descend. [spacer height=”20px”]

What’s To Be Done?[spacer height=”20px”]

When repeat bouts of intense suffering sufficiently deepen, something inside clicks. We’ve had enough.  The healing journey begins whereby nothing matters more than getting to the bottom of why we are entrenched in misery. With support we begin to take ourselves seriously. We stop caring about whose to blame and focus on our own embodied experience. We stop minimizing. We stop spiritual bypassing. We stop making excuses for the lovelessness of those we showed up to love but who denied us the opportunity. We stop running from our feelings. [spacer height=”20px”]

In the place of all our denial strategies, grief washes us clean if we will let it. Like a torrential river it carries us out of the muddied waters of the past and toward to an expansive ocean of future possibilities. The salt waters cleanse our wounds. We are held by a Mothering Ocean of our true, divine nature, in love and compassion. It takes the time it takes and everybody is different. We will be visited by the past, certainly, but the memories will come as friends, not enemies. When they knock at our door, we will invite them in, instead of banishing them. They come with their heartbreaking story and we now understand our only job is to put on the kettle and listen with compassion.


Bruce Sanguin Psychotherapist

Written by Bruce Sanguin

Leave a Comment