First of all, it’s somewhat difficult to nail down the precise meaning of this term. Webster's’ Dictionary defines obnoxious as “liable to a hurtful influence,” or “odiously or disgustingly objectionable,” while the Oxford simply says “extremely unpleasant.” However, in common parlance, the word usually just refers to a garden-variety jerk, like Howard Dean, Keith Olbermann, Randi Rhodes or Bill Maher. Sometimes it refers to people who don’t know how not to be a jerk--Jimmy Carter, Helen Thomas, Maureen Dowd, Ted Kennedy.
However, there is also a form of obnoxiousness that is both temporary and beneficial. It is something that comes into play in both psychotherapy and in spirituality, for both enterprises involve breaking through defenses and introducing unpleasant, sometimes even catastrophic, truths.
In this regard, all effective psychotherapists and true spiritual teachers had better be obnoxious at one time or another. A therapist who does not occasionally confront the patient with unpleasant truths is likely to be little more than a “hand holder” or “professional friend.” And a guru or spiritual teacher who does not point the finger directly at you and say, in effect, “You are one f***** up individual,” is not likely the genuine article.
This particular quote struck me quite forcibly because of its relation to my earlier post on Denial and Submission. Having been more than once accused of being "insensitive" and even a little obnoxious myself, it is definitely worth pondering what Bob has written here.
I think that at its heart, therapy -- when done properly-- holds a mirror up to the patient and let's them see some of those "catastrophic truths" that they have been avoiding in their life.
This is a painful and exhausting process under most circumstances for both parties; and the only reason to go through such an unpleasant experience is because of the hope that by uncovering truth, no matter how painful, the person may then begin to consciously take back control of his or her own life. Or, at the very least, understand that they now face a choice .
Much of the rest of this post comes from an earlier essay on various strategies for dealing with denial. I think the issues discussed are worth repeating at length; primarily because they are extremely important and relevant as we approach the 5th anniversay of 9/11; and as the chorus of voices in denial about the significance of that day seem to grow louder and more shrill and hysterical with each passing day.
In a therapeutic relationship (i.e. where there is a therapist and a patient) theoretically, the person in denial and the therapist collaborate and work together to discover the underlying problem. But it is important to note that even when very motivated to change, it is often the case that the denier exhibits a great deal of resistance to the idea that he or she is in denial.
In real life (i.e., not a therapeutic or professional relationship) all of us must from time to time deal with people in denial; and anyone who has will tell you that getting a person to accept that he or she is ignoring reality is extremely problematic. Unless there is a serious crisis in the person's life, there is little or no incentive for a person to emerge from the comforting cocoon of denial and rationalization--particularly when the consequences of doing so are more threatening to the sense of self than remaining ignorant or oblivious to one's true motivations.
What the psychiatrist does in a situation like this is to interpret the defense, or, make conscious the strategy the individual is using to obscure the truth from himself.
In psychiatry, particularly in psychoanalysis, psychological defenses --especially the immature ones such as denial , projection and distortion --often stand in the way of a person being able to understand the source of their dysfunction and prevent the person from dealing with reality. These unconscious mechanisms act to protect the individual from reality by distorting that reality and making it less threatening.
Ultimately, an individual--whether in therapy or not-- must CHOOSE to deal with reality. No one can make anyone face a terrible truth they wish to avoid. One of the purposes of this blog has always been to "shine a psychological spotlight" on the maladaptive responses to the realities of our world, and in doing so, interpret the various maladaptive defenses that I observe, particularly in politics.
A crisis may stimulate self-analysis and make a person more open to reflection and insight; but waiting for a crisis to happen, especially when someone's denial threatens your own well-being, is frustrating and irritating, to say the least. Also, those who have to deal with people outside of a therapeutic alliance, have neither the patience or desire to wait for the hoped-for epiphany in the denier.
Sometimes a crisis occurs (e.g. the events of 9/11) that should shake everyone out of their complacency for all time--but sadly, even something that catastrophic was not enough to open the eyes of some.
There must be some reason why denial is so pervasive, and first I will address some of the consequences of denial--both the positive and the negative.
THE CONSEQUENCES OF DENIAL
Positive consequences of denial include:
• In the short-term, psychological denial can help a person maintain their sanity--which would be threatened by awareness of a painful truth or reality
• In the short-term, denial can help a person function day to day
• In the short-term, denial can prevent a person from having to acknowledge painful thoughts, feelings or behavior and help them maintain their worldview from unacceptable reality
In the short-term, defenses--even denial-- may be creative, healthy, comforting, and coping. While they may strike observers as downright peculiar, in the short-term, they may be adaptative. Denial is a way to integrate one's experience by providing a variety of filters for pain and mechanisms for self-deception. It creatively rearranges the sources of conflict so that it becomes manageable.
Some negative consequences of denial include:
• In the longer-term, denial requires continued compromises with reality to maintain the pretense that "Everything is fine!" or "If only X would happen, everything would be fine!" Eventually, delusional thinking, along with paranoia and the inevitable conspiracy theories begin to take the place of rational thought in those who deny reality for long periods of time.
• The denier must then place the blame for the unacceptable reality on someone else and that leads to increased conflict between deniers and non-deniers. Efforts to maintain their denial consumes them and will lead them to escalate their anger and rage as their denial becomes untenable and ever more obvious.
• The denier will begin distort language and logic to rationalize and justify their behavior. Eventually, cognitive strategies and rational argument will be abandoned altogether by the denier, because those strategies are not sustainable and are unable to convince others; at which point the person in denial will simply refer to his feelings or emotions as the sole justification.
• The denier will feel justified in acting out against those who threaten the peacefulness of their fantasy.
• Problem solving and decision making will deteriorate as the entire focus of energy becomes the maintenance of the denial. In place of rational alternatives, excessive emotionality in general; and specifically anger and rage escalate toward those who are "blamed" for the reality that does not conform to the denier's worldview.
• In the end, interactions with those in denial are characterized by the denier's frequent smugness; sense of superiority; arrogance; belittlement of alternative views; and undiluted hatred toward anyone or any idea that questions their worldview.
In order to deal with someone who refuses to acknowledge reality or truth, there several basic approaches.
GET YOUR OWN HOUSE IN ORDER!
First, when confronting denial in others, your own house must be in order. In other words, if you are to have any hope of convincing someone else that they have a problem, you must be able to honestly and objectively assess any personal issues you yourself are carrying around that could cause you to distort reality.
In psychiatry, we call this process insight and self-awareness.
What do you look for?
• Hidden motives for your own behavior or beliefs
• Hidden agendas or ideologies that underlie your own thinking; or any thing in your own life that might facilitate distortion of reality or truth.
• Know yourself! Everyone has vulnerabilities, sensitivities, biases etc. These are not contraindicators for confronting denial in others--you don't have to be perfect; just honest with yourself.
Considering all the different vulnerabilities, sensitivities, and biases all human beings have, it actually requires a considerable effort of will to remain in touch with reality.; as well as a continual and conscious effort at a committment to truth. This is fundamental to personal honesty and integrity. Obviously this is not easy, and we are all prone to those self-deceptions that spare us from unpleasant truths about ourselves.
Isaac Asimov once said:
"What I'm doing, really, is to look at things as they are. It's what you must do. Forget your ideals, your theories, your notions as to what people OUGHT to do. Consider what they ARE doing. Once a person is oriented to face facts rather than delusions, problems tend to disappear. At the very least, they fall into their true perspective and become soluble."
So many people look at the world through glasses that filter unacceptable thoughts, feelings and reality; and hence they are only able to see what they want to see, instead of what is (and no, that does not depend on the meaning of the word "is").
Again, this does not require perfection--you don't even have to have "pure" motives--just conscious ones that help you to understand why you think and/or feel a certain way. Then you will be open to recognizing the truth and what is. Then you will have a choice in your actions.
If you are lucky, your scrutinized motives, beliefs, wishes, and desires will not seriously conflict with reality. But, if they do, then you must face the music.
Reality is completely indifferent to your feelings, wishes, or your unresolved issues. And it will ultimately win any competition you play with it.
DEALING WITH OTHERS IN DENIAL
Once you have applied some self-awareness and know your own limitations (as the philosoher Eastwood has said, "A man's gotta know his limitations.") then you can begin to appreciate the magnitude of the task that lies ahead for someone who is chronically in denial about reality.
The second step in the process is to accept the fact that there are positive rewards for the person in denial (at least in the short-term), and that the psychological defense that you would like them to abandon is actually a creative strategy designed to help them keep their sanity and their sense of self and worldview intact.
You have two choices at this point. You can engage the denier in rational argument in the hopes of breaking through their denial; or you can work around them and let them suffer the consequences of their denial. The second strategy may be the best in some cases, but is obviously more difficult if your own fate is tied to theirs. Let's discuss engagement first.
Just because you wish to engage the denier in argument does not mean that you have to allow them to abuse you or threaten you (this has been an issue several times on this blog--while I want to engage people, I don't have to put up with their abuse). That means that the first principle of engagement is
• Limit Setting - you must make sure that the rules of engagement are followed and that what you are seeking is a rational discussion of issues; not a name-calling session where the person who screams the loudest or speaks with the most swear words considers himself the "winner".
Once the limits are set; be prepared for the person in denial to ignore them.
If you still want to engage, then the second principle is:
• Redirection - where you point out what the rules are again and only respond to the rational argument thatmight be buried in all the emotion. Gently (or at least as respectfully as you can--remember, it is your choice to engage them) point out to the person that they are avoiding the point by using such and such a rhetorical ploy or logical fallacy, etc. You can then challenge them to use a rational argument or present their premises and any evidence to support them. This is as close as you might get to "interpreting the defense". Either they will come back more appropriately and logically, or they'll ignore you; or they'll simply abandon the argument. Limit set and redirect as often as necessary.
If you can get the person back on the topic, and expressing his perspective honestly:
• Give constructive feedback (but not in a condescending tone). You can say something like, "that's a good point; let me see if I can counter it."
• Be ready then, to present your own rational perspective, with whatever evidence or facts you have available that might help them begin to question their own irrational beliefs; or even their own honesty.
• Be ready to point out the specific errors in logic; or fallacies and/or rhetorical ploys in their own arguments. Call them on it and ask for objective evidence from that that you would consider. Make sure you know what these fallacies and ploys are!
• Be willing to acknowledge when they have a point..
• Try as much as possible to engage them with what really exists--not what either of you would like to exist.
• Ask them for specific suggestions on how to deal with the problems you can both agree on. Be ready to give your own specific suggestions.
• When applicable, don't solve their problems for them; or shelter, protect or help them avoid the consequences of their denial --unless those consequences also impact you. If that is the case, understand that by letting them off the hook, you have encouraged them to think that their worldview is correct and yours is not.
• Have some standby information to direct them to that they can read on their own time that may help them to face the problem.
• Don't give into the temptation to call them names or to do unto them what they might be doing unto you…unless, of course, you are human; then in that case once in a while it might help your own mental health.
As you can see from the above list, it is quite difficult and time-consuming; as well as frustrating and endlessly repetitive to engage a person in denial.
Sometimes you may think you have put an issue to rest and successfully argued your point; only to discover that later the denier will bring up exactly the same slogans or mantras that you had previously and painstakingly countered!
That is why the level of denial is important to ascertain. Some people simply need to be nudged or reminded of certain facts--e.g., seeing a movie like United 93, or he miniseries The Path to 9/11,; which can bring back the reality of the events of that September day which may have slipped from conscious awareness simply from the everyday vissictitudes of living one's own life.
At the other end of the spectrum are those people, groups, and nations committed to the denial of reality the way others are committed to truth. Their entire sense of identity is dependent on a certain view of the world and they would rather die than relinquish that view.
If you want to continue with the challenge of engaging someone in denial, you must recognize that moments of epiphany and breakthroughs in insight are few and far between. In therapy, you can wait for months and even years for people to confront their own denial and understand the motivations that underlie their own unhappiness--but that is in therapy, where they presumably come to see you to get well and/or happier.
Unless the person you want to engage is a loved one, engaging a person in denial can be a thankless task. It is often the case that, "You can lead a denier to reality, but you can't make him/her
Finally, what do you do if you conclude that you must find a way to ignore or work-around people in denial because you are at risk due to their behavior?
Let me return to my own major motivation for blogging: my observations of the psychological denial --particularly after 9/11--and increasingly psychopathological responses of the left (including many in the Democratic Party) to the war on terror. My hope when I started blogging was that I could offer a unique perspective on the problem and by "shining a psychological spotlight" on the dysfunctional behavior, I could help those with an open mind to to come to grips with the critical issues of our time--Radical Islam and the threat to western civilization.
I remain hopeful that there are many people out who can be motivated to do exactly that. I don't expect them to all think exactly the same as I do about the current situation in the world; nor do I expect them to agree with me on what to do. Surely, reasonable people can differ on these points and amicably work together to come up with optimal solutions.
But what I do expect is some fundamental agreement on what the reality is.
The left's current concensus view on terrorism, Iraq, Afghanistan, the war on terror and Freedom is flatly wrong and cannot be justified by the facts that are out there. Their rhetoric is designed to obfuscate and deny objective reality --which interestingly most of them don't even believe in to begin with (or, they believe in it until it become threatening then they seek refuge behind postmodern political rhetoric). The motivation for their continual Bush/Republican bashing is simple: Bush is the current symbol of their demise--the fly in their utopian ointment; the light shining in their darkness; or, to be more precise, the symbol of the end of their ideology.
How do I know this? Since Bush's election at the millennium, things have been going very badly for the left. As the real world presses in on them, their voices have become more shrill and hysterical; their rage is escalating out of control. No longer do most of them even bother to argue their points logically; they simply loudly denounce any idea or person who threatens their worldview; or deliberately and with the ruthless finesse of all tyrants and thugs, simply attempt to supress all dissenting opinions, while claiming it is others who are oppressing them.
9/11 did not wake many of the leaders of the left up; rather it forced them to openly move toward what they have supported surreptitiously all along--the elimination of free speech in the name of political correctness and multiculturalism; a dictatorship where the pseudo-intellectual, politically correct priesthood rule; and complete control over the lives of others (for their own good, of course). Since their objectives dovetail nicely with those of the Islamic terrorists, they have made common cause with them and have not lost many opportunities to enable and encourage them, even as they denounce America and the principles of freedom and democracy.
They pretend their actions are motivated from love and peace and patriotism; but this is only how they rationalize it to themselves. Their self-deception and denial is simply stunning in its sweeping grandiosity and self-righteousness betrayal of the good.
I am not wasting my time trying to reach people in this group. They are beyond psychological help and will never willingly face the consequences of their actions. For them, it will always be someone else's fault when their intellectual and moral positions bear bitter fruit. Sadly, it is often the case that many innocent people will be dragged down along with them when the consequences hit.
Reality is the ultimate cure for those in denial. And sometimes, the cure itself can be pretty catastrophic. It can upend the world; shred the self; and shatter sacred beliefs. Anyone who leads you to such realities--no matter how caringly or gently--faces the risk of being accused of obnoxiousness and insensitivity or worse.
That is part and parcel of being a therapist. It is something I can live with, because my hope is that by my "obnoxiousness", I will save a life and give a person a real chance at a life worth living.
And, to achieve a life worth living, even the most unpleasant realities and truths about ourselves and the world must be faced and dealt with. The only other option is to live like a mindless deer standing frozen and emotionally paralyzed in the headlights of an oncoming car, waiting for the end.
UPDATE: Trivializing 9/11 - The video that Flopping Aces has up allows its makers to simultaneously trivialize (a form of denial) the events of 9/11, AND ventilate their own sick hostility and aggression towards the victims of that day for having the audacity--through their death and suffering--to memorialize the bankruptcy of the left's ideology.