Dealing with Denying Denial
How many therapists does it take to change a light bulb?
But it really has to want to change.
The first step toward changing a behavior is you really have to want to change that behavior. You’ve had to come to a recognition that some of the things you’ve been saying or doing, or not saying or not doing things, are obviously contributing to your life not working out in ways you would like. Next, you need a plan to change your behavior because changing a behavior isn’t as easy as changing a light bulb.
Dealing with Denying Denial.
In college Psych 101 classes, “Denial” is introduced as a psychological defense mechanism which serves the psyche to consciously or unconsciously avoid admitting, even to our self, that we have a problem, because admitting to ourselves that we have a problem might lead to having to do something about it and we don’t want to have to do that for one reason or another, so we avoid it all by not seeing a problem to begin with.
Do you know anyone in Denial?
Over the past 30 years I’ve come up with four questions for people who appear to be in Denial.
The Four Questions I ask to challenge Denial are:
1) How would you know if you had a problem?
2) If you found out you did have a problem what would you do about it?
3) What would stop you from doing what you believed you ought to do to deal with your problem?
4) What are some likely consequences for you if you don’t deal with your problem?
I suggest writing down the answers to these questions, reading them aloud and signing it, as a reminder for yourself or for someone you care for that Denial can and does influence all of us at some points in our lives and how to grapple with it.
For example, 19-year-old Suzanne was preparing to begin her college career at a school with a reputation for being a big-time party school. She’d been sober for a year. As a senior in high school she’d worked hard as to get control over her addictive patterns with alcohol but now she wanted to start drinking again “to fit in and not feel like an outsider.”
I asked her how she felt about her decision to resume drinking alcohol again and she said, “I know I can do it. I feel really good about it because I don’t think I’m addicted. I believe I can handle it and I’m ready to see if I can drink in moderation or not. But I am anxious that I might lose control and do things I’d regret later on like I did before I got sober.”
She was not ready to admit to herself that her fear of not fitting in was, in itself, a problem. She preferred to focus on controlling her desire for alcohol. But she was anxious about letting the genie out of the bottle. The genie was the part of her psyche who loves to drink because when she drinks she feels free.
“What does it mean to drink in moderation?
How would you know what’s too much?” I asked.
“It means not drinking before 7:00 PM or if I have a class to go to the next morning. It also means not having more than 2 drinks. Once I have three drinks I kind of lose my ability to control myself.”
I asked her, “How would you know if you were having a problem with the alcohol?”
“If I break my own rules about not drinking when I have a class the next day or if I do have more than two drinks. Also, If I get sick and start to throw up or If I black out or If I hook up for sex with someone I just met. If I did any of those things I’d know I was having a problem.”
“What would you do if you recognized that you did have a problem with alcohol?”
“I guess I’d have to go back to not drinking.”
“How would you go about doing that? How would you deal with the problem?”
“AA helped me before. I could go to a meeting and call my sponsor. I could call you.”
The third question was, “What reasons might you give yourself to avoid dealing with the problem?”
“I might feel like its too hard or I don’t want to stop having fun. It’s hard to have fun in the same way when I’m not drinking. I might find reasons to postpone giving it up, like it’s my birthday or Christmas or semester break.”
Now for the fourth question,” What do you foresee as likely consequences for you if you don’t do anything about it?”
“Ugh. I’d get hangovers and it throws my whole day out of whack. It might affect my schoolwork. I’d feel shitty about myself for not taking care of myself and I’d really feel dirty and disgusted with myself when I have sex with someone I don’t even know. That’s just not Ok with me anymore.”
She went to a State school in Northern California and, as planned, she drank in moderation, for about a month. But soon after she began drinking four or five glasses of wine at a time and not showing up for class the next day. What really got her attention was waking up with a guy she’d just met and she didn’t remember his name. She felt badly enough about what she was doing that she stopped drinking by herself. I saw her off and on for a few years after that and she had not consumed any alcohol since that freshman year in college.
These four questions challenge a person in denial to think for themselves, by setting their own guidelines, using their own ideas, not someone else’s ideas, to assess their own behavior.
You don’t have to only be struggling with substance abuse to gain benefit from answering these four questions. Some folks are in denial about how they express their anger or about the amount of time they spend on social media, the phone, pornography or TV. The questions are the same:
1) How would you know if you had a problem?
2) What would you do if you recognized you had a problem?
3) What would stop you from doing what you could do to address the problem?
4) What are likely consequences of not dealing with the problem?
Let me know what happens if you decide to use the questions for yourself or for someone you know.