(THE BOOK) Chapter 34: Ostrich

A man out walking one night finds his neighbor on hands and knees under a street lamp.  “What’s wrong?” he asks.  “I lost my house key,” moans the neighbor.  So he gets down beside the neighbor and together they search the street, without success.  Finally the man asks, “Where were you when you lost the key?”  “In the house,” the neighbor replies.  “In the house?  Then why are we searching for it out here?”  “Oh, it’s light out here,” replies the neighbor.  “It’s dark in the house.”

The defense called denial is about avoiding dark places.  It means refusing to acknowledge an unpleasant reality we’re afraid could overwhelm us.

Denial is the most common defense mechanism because it underlies so many of the others.  Suppression and repression deny the existence of troublesome feelings; intellectualization tries to bypass feelings altogether; projection denies our inability to know the unknowable, and so on.

Like other defenses, denial can be adaptive or maladaptive.  Some of it — like denying the inevitability of our own death, or the risks of driving highways or eating in restaurants — is essential to daily functioning.

I think of this as small-d denial, as opposed to large-D denial, which is pathological.

Large-D denial is familiar to anyone who’s ever known an active alcoholic or drug addict, or grown up in a family with an addict at its emotional center.

Once I refused to get into the car, telling my Dad he was drunk and I wasn’t going anywhere with him.  He hit me and shoved me in the car.  My mother cried and told me never to criticize my father’s drinking again.  How could I spoil such a nice family outing?

This is the famous elephant-in-the-living-room syndrome, where everyone in the family ignores something that’s painfully obvious to outsiders.  

Another form is what AA calls stinking thinking, the denial-ridden thought process of alcoholics:

I’m a social drinker.  I can stop whenever I like.  It’s only one beer.  I deserve to relax.  If you were different I wouldn’t need to drink.  Everyone’s against me.  Life’s just too hard for me.  Who cares?  You have to die someday. 

Control addiction, too, could not exist without denial, since it allows us to forget the mountain of prior experience reminding us how limited our ability to control reality is.

Control addicts, too, employ stinking thinking.  It takes various forms, but behind them all is one dangerous (and often unconscious) assumption:

If I just try again, or harder, or longer, or differently, I can finally make things turn out the way I want them to.

Two other forms of denial that crop up in therapy are blaming and victimization.

Clients blame when they don’t want to take responsibility for problems.  It’s the path of least resistance and greatest comfort.  And given the normal vicissitudes of life and relationships there’s never a shortage of people, places or things to blame.

Dad was a drunk.  Mom was depressed.  My parents fought all the time.  My brother was a bully.  My sister never stopped complaining.  Mom and Dad loved X best.  We never had enough money.  I was sick a lot.  I grew up in a shitty neighborhood.  My teachers didn’t like me.  What chance did I have? 

Victimization is a more unconscious and complicated form of blaming.  It’s what happens when a person becomes defined by prior painful experiences.

Victims often start out denying that they’re victims.  Sometimes their memories are too painful to bear, and sometimes they’ve been trained (e.g., by someone who abused them) to see themselves as responsible for whatever bad thing happened.  The work with such victims is to help them enter the dark house and face the pain hidden there.

Other victims can’t get out of the house.  They live in a kind of waking nightmare: the bad thing that happened to them doesn’t feel like it’s over and done with.  They carry it around with them in their bodies and their mind, and it reshapes them the way the artist’s wire reshapes a bonsai tree.  It colors their view of themselves, other people, life itself.  For them there is no present or future, only a past that recurs endlessly.

The goal of therapy with these people to help them escape the dark house, redefine themselves as adults responsible for their lives, and develop the power to love, protect and take care of themselves.

2 responses to “(THE BOOK) Chapter 34: Ostrich

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