Thursday, June 12, 2014

Asking the Right Questions

A client and I were in session recently and we were discussing insight and denial. Spontaneously within the flow of the session I uttered the question: “So what are you in denial about?” Afterward the client and I both paused and then chuckled at the utter ridiculousness of that preposterous question. Obviously, if someone can accurately answer the question, “What are you in denial about?” then they clearly aren’t in denial about the answer! Think about it.

In reality, however, all of us are in denial from time to time. No one is so “super-aware” or “meta-insightful” that they fully understand and recognize everything there is to know about themselves. Insight is a beautiful thing and it is quite necessary for growth, however insight doled out in large, unfiltered doses especially by others, can at times be toxic. Just imagine for a second, being made fully aware, all of the time of every area in your life that you need to work on. Imagine if you knew everything negative that everyone else thought about you. Unless you are a glutton for punishment, most people would consider that a quite unpleasant experience to say the least.

Please don’t get me wrong here. I am not advocating that we should all strive to be in denial or walk around with our head’s in the sand in order to save ourselves from unpleasant realities. To the contrary, insight and self-awareness (which are both the antithesis of denial) are essential building blocks in the process of positive change. When we realize there is a problem or a shortcoming or a mistake that we need to work on, only then can we really start to the process of trying to either change the situation or change ourselves for the better. Sometimes life slaps us upside the head and wakes us up to face reality and that can be the quickest route out of denial into enlightenment. An eye-opening consequence at the right time can often be the greatest teacher as all of us surely have all had that experience many times over. Unfortunately at other times, life can shake you quite a few times repeatedly with multiple consequences before we finally roll over and wake up to reality. (Think for example, of addiction where multiple consequences often occur before someone recognizes the need to change their behavior)

On a person to person, face to face level, however, the task of one person helping another person to come out of denial and increase awareness can often end up being much more of a slow and deliberate process. People usually don’t respond positively to someone else just blasting them all at once with the bitter realities of all that they need to change (Although in some cases that can work, but usually when someone gets figuratively slapped in the face with reality by someone else, the response is more often to either run away in shame or fear or else to stay and “slap” the person right back in a spirit of defensiveness) When leading someone out of the darkness into the light, so to speak, it can take time for their eyes to adjust to the light as things can be quite blurry at first. Therefore when helping others this often has to be a consideration.

So If you are in helping role (such as a counselor, a parent or even a friend) working with someone else who may in fact be in denial, then it can be critical to be able to manifest the right combination of compassion, empathy, resourcefulness, wisdom and patience needed to help facilitate this gradual and often challenging process of insight and awareness building. So what are you in denial about? I don’t know either, but we can discuss it!



  1. Hey Kenneth!

    I cannot count the number of times that someone tried to tell me I had a substance abuse problem. Whether they were carefully wording the idea, so as not to be confrontational, or being blunt, so as to get it through my thick head, I invariably reacted with defensiveness.

    Even today it can be difficult to be presented with a perspective that I do not share and may suggest that I have an issue that should be addressed.

    Thankfully, I enjoy introspection. Being constructively critical of myself has allowed be to grow as a happy, healthy, self-aware, sober person.

    But denial is a funny thing. It's a concept that's hard to come around to because it requires (in this case) me to concede a shortcoming. What is especially tricky is learning to realize that it's ok to have shortcomings. Working on them so as to grow as a person is what helped me to unlearn denial.

  2. I agree Glenn, I like the way you put it - Getting past denial involves an attitude change which is based on becoming willing to consider the uncomfortable possibility that our own view may be wrong. That's what it takes sometimes to learn, which is not just true for people with substance abuse issues but actually for everyone. Thanks for sharing your insightful thoughts and experience