Denial is part of being human. We deny things in an attempt to protect ourselves from the facts we refuse to face. We all do it at some point. We deny death, we deny that a relationship is over, we deny that we lied to a friend. Sometimes denial can be healthy; we deny the desire to stop working on a paper for school or a project for work by telling ourselves we aren’t tired – we can do it! But denial can also be dangerous. When we deny something to a point that it impacts our lives negatively (i.e. a toxic relationship, an unhealthy addiction), we set ourselves up for hardships.
When a loved one dies, the first stage of grief is denial. It makes sense, right? We refuse to believe they could really be gone. By failing to accept the truth, we allow ourselves to come to terms with the reality slowly. But once we get past the pain and shock, we can toughen up and start to accept what has happened. But how do we get over denial when we don’t feel strong, or when the thing we are denying is something we have to face?
It can be challenging to accept reality when we feel we have an unfinished business.
If someone dies and we don’t get to say goodbye to them, or if we never got the closure we needed from a breakup before moving on to a new relationship, we can feel like something is missing.
Sometimes, the thing that’s missing doesn’t have to be something sentimental, like saying goodbye. In fact, we can experience denial when we didn’t get the chance to be angry with someone. Perhaps you find yourself denying a relationship has ended not because you still love that person, but because you never got to tell that person how angry they made you. Likewise, you could be angry that a parent died because of how the will was written, causing you to deny they are truly gone and there is nothing you can do.
Denial becomes a problem when we use it to avoid the negative emotions.
Though denial is a natural response to a challenging situation, it can be a bad thing if it’s used intentionally. If you deliberately use denial in order to avoid the emotions you are experiencing, you may be hindering the healing process.
In the book turned Netflix series, ’13 Reasons Why,’ a high school girl named Hannah has committed suicide. The show revolves around her parents and classmates struggling to understand why this happened. There’s a shocking scene that perfectly summarizes denial in which the girls’ parents are at dinner.(Spoiler ahead if you haven’t watched it!) Hannah’s mother strikes up a conversation with another patron, the mother of a little girl. The stranger asks if they have children. Hannah’s mother suddenly tells the woman that they have a daughter. She’s 17 and already looking at colleges. The husband looks confused, but she continues to discuss what her daughter may major in, and other elements of her life. At no point did she accept reality and explain that she had a daughter, but she passed away. It’s heartbreaking and tragic, but the husband was trying to cope. That’s why he was confused as to how his wife handled the question.
The denial she was experiencing only caused the two to argue and break down. It didn’t help either of them. Though a fictional example, it’s an accurate one. Because Hannah’s mother didn’t know why her daughter killed herself, or even have the chance to talk her out of it or say goodbye, she couldn’t accept that she wasn’t coming back.
Moving on really is the only option no matter how hard it is.
As much as denial may seem like a safe way to protect yourself from the difficult truth, it just isn’t so. But knowing you need to overcome denial isn’t enough to, well, overcome it. In fact, when you realize you are forcing yourself to ignore the truth and refuse acceptance, you may find yourself even more overwhelmed and wondering where to begin. Like most instances where closure is needed, writing a letter you will never send can be helpful as an outlet. But there are other ways to face your denial and start living a better life.
While you obviously have to accept the situation for what it is and face that you are in denial, there are steps you can take to truly overcome those feelings and start to move on.
Accept the anger you may be feeling.
If you’re denial comes with feelings of anger or extreme disappointment, it’s okay to feel those things! Know that your feelings are valid. Of course, this doesn’t mean you should go around punching walls and yelling at people, but you can scream. Go for a hike, climb a mountain, get somewhere where the only things to be bothered by sound is the wildlife and just let it out. Yell, scream, cry, and throw things if you have to. Until you release that anger, you won’t be able to positively interact with anyone, even if they aren’t the cause of those feelings in the first place.
Simply knowing you’re in denial is not coping.
It’s not enough to accept you’re in denial. Sorry. While it’s the first step to overcoming it, you have to do the footwork. We already know the defense mechanism serves a purpose, but once you feel ready to vent to someone, you have to do it. Make sure when you are ready to talk, it’s with someone you trust to listen and be respectful. The things you are going through are valid, and you need to talk to someone who will know that.
Don’t get caught up in the stages.
While denial is the first stage of grief, don’t get obsessed with following the stages. Everyone deals with things differently, and there’s a good chance you may find yourself skipping around. This doesn’t mean you aren’t actually coping or grieving “properly.” And if you’re trying to help someone grieve and get over their denial, you must stay patient. Even though we may not understand the time it has taken someone to accept a death or a different kind of loss, that person is dealing with it on their own level.
For reference, the stages are as follows:
- Denial: A defense mechanism to deal with great sadness.
- Anger: Frustration and helplessness associated with tragedy often results in feelings of anger.
- Bargaining: You think you could have prevented it if you had just done [insert reason here].
- Depression: Incredible sadness often comes along with grief as the pain of the tragedy begins to set in.
- Acceptance: You will always feel some sadness, but you will begin to move on with your life.
You don’t have to be strong and you don’t have to forget.
Overcoming denial doesn’t mean you can’t feel. You’re allowed to cry and you’re allowed to move on with your life while still carrying that loss with you. There is no “right” way to feel pain or accept something life-changing. You will always carry the event in your heart, but you will overcome the feelings of anger and blame. Even though it’s hard and it will always hurt when you think about it, overcoming denial is the only way to regain control of your life.
Along with allowing yourself to be patient as you face your denial, remember that whatever you are experiencing that caused you to feel that denial in the first place is valid. People can grieve for death, moving away from home, graduating or even changing jobs. If you are in pain or hurting, acknowledge that. There is no comparison of pain that you should measure yourself against. Your feelings matter, and so does your happiness. Overcome your denial to live in happiness.
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