by Kathy Batesel
Denial Isn't Just for Addiction, But is Helping a Waste of Time?
Is someone you love in denial about a problem in their life? It may be a problem that affects your life, too, but their unwillingness to see things from a different point of view may prevent finding a solution.
Having worked as an addiction counselor, I learned a great deal about denial as it related to alcoholism, drug abuse, and codependency. However, denial isn't just for addicts. Nearly everyone uses denial to some extent.
In our relationships with other people, a small degree of denial may even be necessary. However, denial causes problems when it interferes with problem-solving. A person may need help because they are hurting themselves, or our relationship may be suffering and we've discovered that our attempts to fix the problems haven't worked.
What can we do when someone we love refuses to see an important problem?
What is Denial?
Simply stated, denial is a defense mechanism that gives us a way to protect ourselves from unpleasant knowledge. When we cringe and look away from a horrifying picture or a spider on the wall, we're protecting ourselves by denying it an opportunity to affect us more. Sounds harmless enough, right?
These are two minor examples of how we protect ourselves from feeling vulnerable. In reality, these two scenarios don't make us all that vulnerable to harm, but plenty of other things do. We have our own way of viewing the world. This worldview is completely unique to each individual, and anything that threatens our worldview is a very big threat, indeed!
Plenty of entertaining movies have depicted scenes in which a person's knowledge of their world is disrupted. One well-known example is "The Matrix," in which the lead character, John Anderson (also known as Neo), discovers that his entire life has been nothing more than electronic impulses passing through his brain in an otherwise inert body. His "memories" of playing sports, attending school, interacting with other people, were fabrications that never happened.
How would you respond if you found yourself in a situation like that? Would you shrug and say, "Oh, well, I have no history, no family, and no beliefs or values of my own, so everything is hunky-dory?"
Of course not! You'd look for evidence that you were real, that your life had been worth living, and that you did, in fact, live it. You'd deny the new knowledge and seek information that supported what you already "know" to be true.
Each of us has been developing our beliefs, our attitudes, and our values since we were born. Those things we came to believe were created and later reinforced by experiences we've had. Sometimes those experiences were bad ones. Maybe our parents were abusive, and we saw other children who were treated better, so we learned that we weren't as good as other children. When our parents abused us again, it "proved" that we'd learned the correct lesson.
Humans cannot survive and thrive on self-hatred. We have basic emotional needs, including the needs to belong, to feel loved, to feel capable and competent, to feel knowledgeable, to have a sense of control in our lives. When the lessons we've learned conflict with these needs, denial helps us make sense of something that wouldn't be logical. If we are "unlovable" but need to feel loved, denial helps us believe we can find love even as our behavior sets out to prove that we aren't really worthy of it. We need to confirm our worldview even as we struggle against it.
After we look at basic needs and common symptoms of denial, we'll look at this struggle in more depth to address how to help someone caught in its net.
What Needs Do Humans Have?
Common Types of Denial
Saying something is not so when it is, or that it is true when it's not.
"I didn't say that" (when I did.)
Claiming something is less than it is.
"I only spent $20." (I spent $30.)
Claiming there is a good reason for a behavior.
"I couldn't call because I was working."
Finding intellectual reasons to justify a behavior.
"My boss criticizes my work because he hates me." (I didn't meet standards.)
Pointing out a different issue to reduce focus on the current one.
"I'm sarcastic, but you're controlling."
Blaming / Projection
Claiming that a behavior was because of someone else.
"I wouldn't have hit you if you weren't yelling."
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Denial is a Slippery Slope
The tactics mentioned above are just a few of the ways illogical thinking can be expressed by a person in denial. Dealing with someone about an important issue can make us question our own sanity. The "rules" seem to change all the time. Just when you think they cannot possibly ignore so much evidence, you discover just how creative the brain in denial can be. Even if they acknowledge the problem to some extent, they still find ways to protect themselves from fully recognizing what the problem is doing to their lives and the lives of people around them.
There are just two ways a person in denial will come out of their denial: intervention and crisis. In either case, the individual must make a choice to doubt themselves.
A crisis might propel a person to examine their beliefs. The crisis has to be important enough to them that getting through it appears worse than changing that all-important worldview and exposing their darkest shames to themselves and others.
Intervention is what we're talking about when we ask, "How can I help someone who doesn't want help?"
When we attempt to intervene in another person's life when it's unwelcomed, we're likely to meet with failure. It's like the old proverb that has been attributed to many sources, though most often to Benjamin Franklin, "He that complies against his will is of his own opinion still."
It would seem then, that persuading someone who doesn't want to be persuaded is a fruitless endeavor. To be honest, it might be a complete waste of time. However, sometimes people have a niggling suspicion or a nagging certainty about the truth they're trying to avoid. They just cannot let themselves be vulnerable to admitting it.
This is where intervention enters the picture.
Intervention creates a controlled crisis condition. A person who has avoided seeing their doctor for recurring chest pain might acquiese and go if the alternative is unthinkable - perhaps his wife has gotten angry and accuses him of being selfish. Her rejection is something he'll do anything to avoid. Her anger is the crisis he wants to avoid, so he chooses to pick up the phone and make an appointment to restore peace to their household.
Although most problems are more complex, the principles of intervention remain true: Only the denier can force himself or herself to break the denial, and this will only happen if they choose to. He or she must perceive a crisis that will produce an outcome they'll do anything to avoid.
This might make us think, "Oh, okay. I've got an idea, and he'll thank me later, once he's not in denial anymore." "She'll forgive me once she learns how much this has been affecting her life."
While that is sometimes true, more often than not the results are quite the opposite. Remember, the denier who finally faces reality and makes necessary changes did so because of his or her own choice to doubt themselves. They are unlikely to appreciate or feel grateful toward anyone who fostered a crisis, especially one that forced them into a highly vulnerable state.
Occasionally, they will forgive and perhaps be grateful to a person who has intervened. When this is the case, they usually perceive the intervening person or people as trustworthy, someone who didn't harm them with harsh judgments or crticism along the way. Someone who remained loving even as they were firm about upholding their boundaries.
Few of us can achieve an intervention alone and still remain in relationship with the denier. Because changing one's worldview is such an extreme psychological threat, a denier will escalate their denial mechanisms until the relationship fractures, they succeed in protecting themselves, or they choose to face the crisis. That escalation can produce violence, something that should never be overlooked when choosing to engage with a person in chronic denial about important issues.
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Increase Your Chance of Success
There are three things we can do to substantially improve your odds of helping a person in denial.
- Remove ourselves from the situation: It's hard for a denier to blame someone who did not take part in the crisis, even if your departure is the crisis that guides them to change. At first, they will likely project blame, but as they begin their recovery, they may perceive our departures as protecting ourselves rather than trying to manipulate or hurt them.
- Enlist friends and family to help. When a person is in denial, they have countless ways to protect their worldview. If they hear gentle, loving confrontation of their irrational beliefs from many people, it becomes harder for them to maintain their illusions.
- Obtain professional assistance. If the denial involves a chemical addiction, specialists in the mental health field provide an invaluable service. Interventionists coordinate with friends and family to provide a forum to formally ask the denier to get the help they need. Individual and marital counselors can sometimes be the objective, safe confronter that gives a denier the opportunity to risk vulnerability and change.
When Not to Attempt Intervention with a Denier
If the denier is a loved one - a spouse, a child, a parent, sibling, or close friend - intervention has a high risk of harming the relationship, sometimes beyond repair. We should carefully consider other alternatives we may have.
- Is the problem so big that we must take action? If not, it may be best to stop engaging on the topic altogether.
- If it is something we cannot live with, we should consider whether we can leave the denier to their own devices and wait for a crisis to come along. It may take years, which many of us don't have the patience for, but if we stop rescuing and protecting the denier, it may happen sooner. Codependency groups like CoDa, Al-Anon, and Nar-Anon are excellent resources if we don't know how to stop letting the problem affect our own lives.
- Similarly, if it's something we cannot live with, we should examine other alternatives. Individual counseling may help. Leaving the situation or changing the environment may provide partial solutions.
- If there is a history of violence, intervention should never be attempted without professional help. Ever.
If You Must Engage with a Denier
A Heartfelt Wish From the Author to You
Helping a person who doesn't want help is a thankless task. Their well-being may be important enough for you to sacrifice your relationship if necessary. You may feel like the relationship has already been destroyed to an extent that forcing the matter isn't much of a risk after all.
This article may not have provided the kind of how-to guide you wish you could find, but there's good reason that there are no best-sellers on this topic: There's no way to help someone who doesn't want it without taking a huge relationship risk. If you must engage, these books at the right can help you build important skills to deflect some of the denial tactics you're likely to face.
It takes courage, fortitude, and a great deal of pain to engage with people who are deeply in denial about a problem. Whatever choice you make, and however you go about solving the problem, I wish you the very best possible outcome.
Travel Chef from Manila on May 16, 2018:
It is very difficult to help people who are in denial of the fact that they really need help. Plus they will blame people around them about their current situation. Then at times, these people reject all advices. As they will claim that those people trying to help them are simply contradicting their decisions, so the more they won't listen to them.
jellygator (author) from USA on May 25, 2012:
There are a few rare exceptions, but yes, that's the general outcome.
ptosis from Arizona on May 25, 2012:
It is a thankless task - and futile. Sometimes it's best to remove yourself and distance yourself from a self destructive person because all that worry and bailing them out of trouble - won't make them grateful for your concern. You will be blamed.
jellygator (author) from USA on May 22, 2012:
Thanks, raggededge! It definitely *is* different with a child who's not out of the house yet! In my opinion, that's probably one of the toughest times to make decisions.
Bev G from Wales, UK on May 22, 2012:
You make some interesting points. I like the way you present 'three sides to the coin'.
I don't think anyone should impose their will on another if it is unwanted. How do we know that the person in question is undergoing a negative experience? It may be the perfect situation for them at the time. It's one person's judgment over another.
I agree with removing oneself from the situation; then the 'denier' has the opportunity to re-examine their behavior and perhaps come to a pro-active decision.
Children are slightly different (depending on age, of course; parents should offer help but be prepared to be refused. It's hard for a parent of a teen or adult child who is on a course of self-destruction, but you can only do what you can do. Sometimes you have to let go, stand back and endure it.