What is Denial?
Denial at it’s most basic is saying something hasn’t happened. As it applies to recovery, it means denying a painful reality. For recovering abusers, denial is a coping mechanism that allows us to continue harming other people and live with ourselves by refusing to accept that we are doing anything wrong. It is extremely sick, and extremely powerful. It is the way that we can commit abuse and still live with ourselves. It allows us to continue being abusive by staying in the sick place, and by allowing us to hide our sickness from others so that we can maintain the abusive situation for a longer period of time.
The seeds of that denial come quite early. People usually don’t just decide one day “Hey, I think I’ll go beat my wife today,” or “Hey, I think I’ll go molest some young kids.” The road to the big sins of abuse is usually paved with a million small sins that lead up to it. By committing the smaller sins and rationalizing them to ourselves, we not only bring ourselves closer to the state wherein we can commit the big sin, we also become more practiced at the art of lying to cover our sins up. We lie to others, and most devastatingly, we lie to ourselves.
The major tactics we use in maintaining our denial are minimizing, rationalizing, and justifying. The effect of these tactics is to redefine what happened, what is acceptable, and what is harmful in such a way that ultimately any act, no matter how hideous, can be carried out.
Minimizing distances us from the damage we caused by claiming that the damage wasn’t as bad as it actually was. “I didn’t beat her up, I just pushed her.” By minimizing the damage we have caused, we can then blame the victim for “exaggerating” the abuse or accuse the victim of simply making the whole thing up, depending on the nature of the evidence we face. If there is enough evidence to prove that we have done something wrong, we can use partial repentance: “I’ll accept the responsibility of anything you can prove I did, and nothing more.”
Rationalizing is lying to oneself about what was done to make it seem acceptable — telling ourselves rational (sounding) lies if you will. “She’s lucky I only hit her once. Anybody else would have beaten the crap out of her.” This lying becomes more and more practiced until we can convince ourselves of anything — particularly when the pain of admitting the truth of what we’ve done becomes larger and harder to deal with.
Justifying is explaining why it was okay to do what was done. “It was okay for me to tell her that I would kill her (justifying) because she was becoming so upset and she had to shut up before she disturbed the neighbors (rationalizing) and I didn’t really mean it anyway (minimizing). She knows I could never hurt her.”
Part of the reason for maintaining denial is that when we are abusing others we are frequently incapable of separating ourselves from our behavior, and therefor to admit that the behavior is bad is to make us bad as well. Nobody wants to think of themselves as bad, so we don’t think about things that way.
Denial is a survival skill — it allows an abuser to live with what they’ve done. That is, it keeps abusers alive in a situation they would not survive without it. This explains why abusers will expend such great effort in maintaining their denial — if it is important to someone in denial that fish not swim, then they can look you straight in the eye and tell you that fish don’t swim and believe it themselves. It is difficult to over-estimate the power this kind of denial has.
The only cure for denial is for us to give up the charade and the lies and admit to ourselves the reality of what we have done. Others can not force an end to our denial. However, the use of truth, honesty, and holding us accountable for our actions can go a long way in helping us move from denial to recovery.
How can I tell when a thought is denial?
This is a bit tricky, because denial is so insidious in its ability to weave itself into our thought patterns. However, I have found a good rule of thumb to be that a response that comes quickly and where it would hurt if the alternative is true might be denial. That is, things that we most fear frequently are true and we are denying them.
Things that follow the word “but” are frequently denial: “I know it’s wrong to yell at her like that, but she really pissed me off .” Adding the words “you don’t understand” makes it more likely that it’s denial: “Yeah, usually I’d consider that to be abusive. But you just don’t understand how mad she can make you. She can really push your buttons hard sometimes.” In these kinds of statements, the truth is to be found in front of the “but.”
Times when you are “crossing uncharted ground” can be denial, with part of the denial covering the fact that the territory is well traveled by other people just as sick as you are. One way of telling about this is when the idea is about an area that you are unwilling to research because you fear finding out you are wrong. The rationale (rationalization) for this process is that the folks who have experience in the area “really don’t know what they’re talking about, at least in this instance,” so you might as well start from scratch with your own ideas rather than getting messed up looking over the existing material. It’s based in the rather egotistical concept that you are so unique an individual that the rules that apply to others shouldn’t apply to you.
Any time you are comparing yourself to someone else you are likely justifying something you know to be wrong: “Man, he really treats his wife like crap. I never call my wife a slut like he does. I never call her anything worse than a bitch. And I never swear when I’m yelling. Boy, he’s really out of control. I’m glad I’m not like him. I wonder why she puts up with him.” No matter who you are, or how bad the things you are doing are, you can always find someone doing worse — Ted Bundy could find people who killed more people, or did it more brutally, but that doesn’t make what he did okay.
Certainly any time you blame anyone outside yourself for what’s wrong with you, that is denial on its face: “I never would have hit her that hard if she hadn’t called her ex-boyfriend again. I don’t know what it’s going to take to make her stop. If she’d only listen to me I wouldn’t get so mad at her.”
And virtually anything said followed by “That’s just the way I am” is denial.
If you remain in doubt as to whether something is denial or not, bring it to someone who does not have an interest in maintaining the denial — don’t ask your drug dealer if you have a drug problem, for example; ask your facilitator or counselor instead. Run the idea past them. If you are afraid to do this, it’s most likely denial. If they think it sounds pretty incredible, it might well be.