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How to Deal With Unhealthy Denial

Sometimes we have problems that are crying out to be dealt with, but we choose to ingnore them until they grow...and grow. What can we do in practice to overcome our natural inertia regarding behavior patterns that really need to be changed?

by Beverly Smallwood, Ph.D.

Denial is a coping mechanism commonly used when something happens that we really don’t want to see. Doing this is actually quite natural. After all, we want to keep our lives in order, and we resist taking in information that we feel would result in a loss for us.

A certain amount of denial is actually healthy. For example, right now if you thought of all the bad things that could possibly happen in the important areas of your life, you would become anxious and depressed.

Emotionally healthy people have the ability to focus on the things that are most encouraging and positive, thereby helping themselves stay motivated to deal with life. The truth is, this involves a level of denial.

However, beware of unhealthy denial. This happens when there is something that needs to be dealt with, but you choose to ignore it while it grows.

Types of unhealthy denial

There are four basic types of denial that you may put into practice.

1. Denial of the existence of a problem

You can choose to completely ignore a situation. However, this denial is actually not completely successful. We know this because, after the situation comes to light, you look back at the things that have happened and ask, “Why didn’t I see it?”

Think about it. You did see it, or you wouldn’t be able to remember it after the fact. It’s just that you screened it out of your awareness. You observed it, but you denied its connection to the real problem that existed.

2. Denying the signicance of the problem

Another form of denial involves acknowledging that there is a problem, but discounting its significance. For example, the developing alcoholic may tell himself, “Sure I drink sometimes, I can quit any time I want to.” The overbearing manager may tell herself, “Of course I get irritated. Who wouldn’t when employees don’t perform as they should?”

4. Denial of the options available

In this case, you may acknowledge that there is a problem and that it is significant, but you may deny that there is any way that change can take place. You tell yourself, “There’s no use to try”, and you don’t.

4. Denial of your personal ability to change

Even when you have acknowledged that there is a significant problem and that there are some things that could possibly help, you may still deny your personal ability to change. Have you ever said things like this?

  • “I was born this way.”
  • “I got my temper from my father.”
  • “I’ve tried before, and I can’t be successful.”

5. Denying the time urgency

One last way that you can use denial to keep from dealing with a problem is to put it off. Does this sound familiar? “I’ll deal with this, just as soon as....” There never is a more convenient time.

How to confront your own denial

If you saw yourself in any of these scenarios, and you realized that you are in denial about some behavior pattern that you really need to change, what can you do about it? Here are some suggestions.

1. Examine and acknowledge those areas in which you are not being honest with yourself

What are the thoughts or situations you’ve been trying to avoid because they remind you of something that you need to do? What kinds of statements about others have you rejected defensively because they hit too close to home?

1. Focus on the things you've tried to ignore

Look for the truth in those things you’ve been trying to ignore and avoid. Is there some truth in what people have been telling you? If so, what do you plan to do about it?

3. Allow yourself to feel and experience the truth

It’s not pleasant to face aspects of yourself that you’d rather not see. Don’t be surprised if you feel some embarrassment and depression when you first begin to make progress in confronting your denial.

4. Don't procrastinate

The longer you put off doing something about the situation you’ve been avoiding, the easier it is to slide back into denial. Courageously face your own behavior, make a plan to improve it, and stay with that plan through the struggle of forming new habits.

Disappointments, setbacks, and unwelcome changes are a fact of life. Some people are able bounce back easily and actually become stronger as they meet the challenges of life. Others grow weaker and less optimistic as the experiences of life accumulate.

What makes the difference between these people? One factor is the ability to be honest with oneself.

Do you have that kind of courage?

Dr. Bev Smallwood is a psychologist, professional speaker, and executive and personal coach who specializes in creating Magnetic Workplaces® and in bringing out the best in people. She's author of the upcoming book: This Can't Be Happening to Me!. Sign up for her free email newsletter at her website: http://www.MagneticWorkplaces.com. Contact Dr. Bev by email at: Bev@MagneticWorkplaces.com or by phone, 877-CAN-LEAD (226-5323) or 601-264-0890.

Some Related Articles:

Facing Up to the Elephant in the Room
Changing Bad Habits: Six Stages to Success
Stuck in a Rut? Here's How to Get Out
Untwist Your Thinking!
How to Overcome Irrational Fear

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