Denial can be thought of as a complex psychological process where there may be some conscious knowledge or awareness of events in the world, but somehow one fails to feel their emotional impact or see their logical consequences.
Denial is an attempt to reject unacceptable feelings, needs, thoughts, wishes--or even a painful external reality that alters the perception of ourselves. This psychological defense mechanism protects us temporarily from:
-Knowledge (things we don’t want to know)
-Insight or awareness that threatens our self-esteem; or our mental or physical health; or our security (things we don't want to think about)
-Unacceptable feelings (things we don’t want to feel)
Think of it this way. Every one of us has at one point or another in our lives had to face an unpleasant reality or painful truth and at the very least probably desperately wished it would go away. The first words out of the mouth of someone notified of the sudden death of a friend or loved one is usually an involuntary exclamation of, “NO!” And this initial--and universal-- angry refusal to accept the pain we would feel if the death were real, is perfectly natural. The negative reaction gives us some time to readjust our thinking and our feelings and prepare mentally and physically for the horrible reality of death.
But if you are still saying, “No, it can’t be true!” days and weeks after the death; refusing to face the reality; then you are in serious denial.
One situation where the concept of psychological denial is used quite frequently, is in the Chemical Dependency field (drug and alcohol abuse). Anyone who has dealt with an addict has probably heard one of the following phrases or something like it:
“I could quit anytime I wanted.”
“I’d quit if people would leave me alone.”
“I can handle it on my own.”
“I’m under stress and it helps me to relax”
I could go on, but you have all head the excuses that alcoholics and drug addicts make to pretend to themselves that they don’t have a problem. When confronted, they become angry and usually contend that it is their confronter who has the REAL problem, not them. Adolescents are also extremely good at using this strategy.
Denial is also commonly used by people with chronic illnesses such as:
- diabetes (“I can eat anything I want”);
-heart problems (“I’m not really having chest pain”);
-cancer (“It’s just a small cough”) and
-AIDS (“I’m not Gay so I couldn’t get it”).
All of this just goes to show that it is very difficult to confront one’s mortality; or to give up one’s fantasies of control or invincibility. Yet, facing reality—even painful reality-- is also one of the many important challenges of life that each of us needs to accomplish every day.
Denial need not be absolute and completely cut off from reality. Even among alcoholics and drug users there is a varying level of awareness of their problem. Some accept that they are in jail or sick because of their substance use, but yet are still not willing to do anything about it. Some may recognize some facts about their drinking (like that they get put in jail), but completely deny the impact of those facts on themselves or their families; or the future implications of continued drinking or drug use (e.g., that they are killing themselves and will die).
So, what does all this have to do with the current situation in the world? Well, I submit that denial can be a strategy not only of individuals, but of groups; organizations; and entire nations.
The Wonderful World of Denial allows someone to believe something is true, when it is obvious to everyone else it is false. Iit permits someone to pretend they are feeling "love" or other altruistic emotions when they are actually behaving in a hateful manner; it hides the truth by using big words and grand concepts to prevent an individual from feeling unacceptable feelings (some have referred to "intellectualizion" (example)--which is a defense mechanism related to denial-- as "denial gone to college").
I would be engaging in "intellectualization" in this blog, if I tried to pretend that I was neutral and did not have feelings about the incidents I see every day in the news. I try to be objective (but I don't have any particular obligation to be objective, since I am not claiming to be either a journalist or a saint); and I am committed to an objective Truth and Reality that exists beyond what I may want or feel it to be. On the whole, intellectualization is a step healthier than denial, which is generally considered exceedingly unhealthy in most cases; but it is still neurotic.
Denial can make otherwise intelligent individuals/groups/nations behave in a stupid or clueless manner, because they are too threatened by the Truth and are unable to process what is perfectly apparent to everyone. People who live in this Wonderful World go through their daily lives secure in the knowledge that their self-image is protected against any information, feelings, or awareness that might make them have to change their view of the world. Nothing--and I mean NOTHING--not facts, not observable behavior; not the use of reason or logic; or their own senses will make an individual in denial reevaluate that world view. All events will simply be reinterpreted to fit into the belief system of that world--no matter how ridiculous, how distorted, or how psychotic that reinterpretation appears to others. Consistency, common sense, reality, and objective truth are unimportant and are easily discarded--as long as the world view remains intact.
This is the Wonderful World that we are often amused to see young children playing in. It is amusing to us because we understand that they are just beginning to develop their intellectual and emotional faculties and denial and the subsequent use of fantasy is an important developmental phase; and is also rather cute when practiced by a toddler.
There are many children's stories where this theme plays out--Where the Wild Things Are; The Secret Garden; The Neverending Story, etc. etc. Fantasy books help the child (and sometimes the adult!) to reconcile himself/herself to the harsher aspects of reality.
But a childlike response to reality is not so cute or sweet when it is a behavioral strategy engaged in by a full grown man or woman, who , when they suffer a shock--such as the loss of a loved one; or suffer the insight that their beloved belief system is responsible for death and destruction-- deny the facts and substitute an agreeable fantasy or delusion and then behave as if their fantasy/delusion were true. In extreme cases, this is called severe mental illness.
Certainly denial can be used by anyone; and both sides of the political spectrum engage in it-- Democrats or Republicans; Left or Right. But the most recent example, and the one with the most serious implications is the continued denial of reality on the part of Democrats and the Left regarding Iraq.
The examples of their unwillingness to face reality are everywhere. They pretend they didn't vote for military action. They distort what was actually said and even when confronted with audiotapes and transcripts of what was said; they continue to deny that they meant any such thing. When confronted with what Bush or Cheney actually said about the reasons for going to war; they will insistently adhere to an interpretation that fits their template.
Their denial is complete on this issue. It is simply not possible for them to admit that Bush was correct and they were wrong. This is unacceptable knowledge. Bush must be wrong, and America must fail for them to maintain not only their self-esteem, but also their worldview.
Now that one of their number has come out and expressed something positive about the "quagmire" in Iraq; and the polls show they are losing popular support and hurting the troops when they talk about giving up--they will possibly behave differently for a while. But I suspect they will cling to their fantasy even as they pragmatically deal with the reality. We'll hear about these fantasies over and over again because they simply cannot give them up. It is far too dangerous to their sense of self. Once things settle down, they go right back to believing what was just shown to be false.
By the way, optimism is NOT denial. Extreme optimism can become a form of denial, if it is excessive and prevents an individual from doing what needs to be done. But in fact, optimism is usually an important personality trait that tends to make people who possess it successful in the world of reality. People who have healthy optimism are those who face the truth about a situation and make adjustments to make their vision of how things should be come into reality.
After 9/11, Bush faced a terribly unpleasant fact-- and understood that, if we did nothing to respond, we would still be pretending that everything is fine and dandy. If we ignored what had happened, we could maintain that false sense of security held by the nation in the previous decade -- at least until the next attack upon us. Many would prefer to pretend that 9/11 didn't really happen. Or to pretend that the U.S. caused the attacks; or that if Bush weren't the President, the attacks would never have happened. All these fantasies have one thing in common. They deny the reality for the purpose of maintaining a sense of control over events whose implications are horrendous.
For some, it is so much better to believe in the fantasy of control (get rid of Bush and it will all go away--just like a bad dream!)
One of the most amusing aspects of the denial of the Islamofascist threat, is how eager those who deny its reality are ready to embrace the fantasy that somehow Christianity is the real threat. Witness all those who claim that Bush is imminently going to impose a Christian theocracy here; the complete hysteria over Christian "symbols" and the denial of a Judeo-Christian heritage. This is the same kind of psychological displacement that can be seen in the phenomenon of Bush Derangement Syndrome. If Bush is the cause of all the evil in the world, these same people see Christianity (or Judaism--any religion but Islam) as the greatest threat to the utopia in their mind.
The intellectual "Vietnamizing" of every event in Iraq and the failure to see Iraq's importance in the War on Terror and consequently for the long-term security of America, completely denies the Islamofascist threat to civilization. Putting Iraq in this context makes one understand the power of freedom and democracy to transform the world.
Failure to appreciate the liberation of millions of men, women and children, who for the first time in generations have the potential to live their lives in freedom is an incredible denial of what the Left has always claimed to stand for (is "liberation of the oppressed" one of their memes?). Well, Bush has faced reality, and is doing what needs to be done. Granted, he is not doing it perfectly--far from it. But the debate should be how to do it better, not whining about how we shouldn't have done it in the first place! Or (in a whining tone): How was I supposed to know that people could actually die in a war? or, If it doesn't go perfectly we should just give up.
The proponents of doom and gloom would maintain that it is Bush who is in denial (or people like me). How does one tell who is correct when both are claiming the other side is in denial?
I once saw a remarkable patient with arelatively rare neurological diagnosis. He had suffered a stroke and one of his symptoms was that he did not acknowledge that the entire left side of his body was physically a part of him. It was an astonishing conversation our team had with him. "Is this your arm," the neurologist would ask him, pointing to the patient's left arm. "No, it's not mine," would be the reply. The neurologist would then take the man's arm and show him how it was connected with the rest of his body. The man would watch this, then shake his head and emphatically tell us, "No! I see that it is connected. Someone must have connected it when I wasn't looking. But it isn't my arm."
The evidence that it was his arm was before him. Because of physical damage to his brain, this gentleman was never able to be convinced that the arm on the left side of his body belonged to him. Likewise, in the case of psychological denial, the individual is also not swayed by repeated attempts to point out the obvious.
- the Joint Resolution agreed to by both Democrats and Republicans to use force Iraq, which lists 22 reasons why (and WMD is not the first or the second reason)
- the historically low number of U.S. military killed in combat (which must always be said with the obligatory "every death is a tragedy, of course...." disclaimer. Indeed, every death is a tragedy, but most people would rather die for something positive; than for nothing)--yet the fact remains that in 3 years of combat, U.S. combat death numbers are not even close of one battle in WWII (Iwo Jima); and are nowhere near the death toll of Vietnam. This amazing fact is brushed off. Protestors who are really opposed to needless death might want to consider a more efficient protest strategy; perhaps against automobile manufacturers, since in this country alone, we must deal with more than 40,000 deaths per year )
-the fact that Iraq has now held two elections --both of which were highly successful; both of which are now completely ignored as milestones; with Democrats determinedly maintaining just as each milestone is passed, that the only important milestone is the next one.
-the fact that the MSM has continued to NOT give any context to any battle or death reported in Iraq. How is one to make any sense of the events in Iraq withou this information? Thus, their reporting suggests that there is no sense, no rhyme, no reason to all the events. They are simply haphazard intermittant occurrances, not anchored to any strategy or plan. But if you look at what soldiers say; what Centcom says; and what many knowledgable milbloggers point out--there is a carefully thought out overall strategy and the "disconnected" events that make no sense to the reporters (who don't even bother to do the simplest analysis) make perfect sense to the soldiers and commanders on the ground. So what if not every action works out according to the plan--that is the way of war.
-the fact that even when their own words are pointed out to them, Democrats and the Left deny that is what they meant and cling to the belief that they "did not support" the war.
-the fact that no amount of evidence of Saddam's connection to terrorism --e.g., supporting Palestinian suicide bombers; providing refuge for well-known terrorists; even have a terrorist training camp in Iraq--is ever enough to justify making a connection in the minds of some.
-the fact that most of Iraq is peaceful is not acknowledged at all. There are even functioning amusement parks (built by our Marines)--but who would know when the media keep silent about such things
-the fact that many of the U.S. military personnel in Iraq are positive about the mission and that re-enlistment rates are at an all time high.
-the fact that there is no way militarily for the terrorists/insurgents to actually win.
-the fact that there is now a government in Iraq elected by the people there
-the fact that by going into Iraq, we have set in motion a wave of freedom (or at least a desire for it) all over the Middle East. Witness - Lebanon; elections in Egypt; subtle but definite changes in Saudi Arabia; Libya and the ripples have extended even beyond that locale.
In recognizing the above facts, I do not deny that there are difficulties--even unexpected difficulties that have come to pass. It is true that the U.S. planners did not anticipate a delayed and fierce resistance from the dead-enders in Iraq. Everyone did expected a humanitarian disaster and refugee problem--which did not materialize as it turns out. But that is one one of the messy things about war --and reality. Things are not perfect. The unexpected happens. Death occurs, even innocents can get caught up in it. This is sad, but true.
One of the strategies we use in psychiatry to deal with denial--and other psychological processes that are counterproductive-- is to make the unconscious or partly conscious process or dynamic become fully conscious. When confronted with reality, it then becomes a choice for the individual. to continue to live in denial; or to confront reality and do what is necessary.
Joe Lieberman, a Democrat and an honorable person recently returned from Iraq and had this to say: (hat tip: Instapundit)
I have just returned from my fourth trip to Iraq in the past 17 months and can report real progress there. More work needs to be done, of course, but the Iraqi people are in reach of a watershed transformation from the primitive, killing tyranny of Saddam to modern, self-governing, self-securing nationhood--unless the great American military that has given them and us this unexpected opportunity is prematurely withdrawn. . . .
Here is an ironic finding I brought back from Iraq. While U.S. public opinion polls show serious declines in support for the war and increasing pessimism about how it will end, polls conducted by Iraqis for Iraqi universities show increasing optimism. Two-thirds say they are better off than they were under Saddam, and a resounding 82% are confident their lives in Iraq will be better a year from now than they are today. What a colossal mistake it would be for America's bipartisan political leadership to choose this moment in history to lose its will and, in the famous phrase, to seize defeat from the jaws of the coming victory.
So which will it be? The Wonderful World of Denial where we can close our eyes and dream our lives away, pretending that the world is a safe place (if only Bush were not President)? Or, the infinitely less perfect World of Reality-where tbings aren't safe, and where life is often messy and dirty and not entirely as clear or precise as we would like--but where we can actually do something to make the world safer, more democratic, and more free?
(note: parts of this post were originally posted in September, 2004)