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Denial Might Work a Bit Differently Than You Thought

The word "denial" gets thrown around a lot. Does it mean what we think it does?

Key points

  • When a loved one engages in behavior that is scary or dangerous, it's natural to urgently want them to stop.
  • Even if a behavior is destructive, it can still serve a purpose for an individual, leading them to feel ambivalent about stopping.
  • Instead of accusing a loved one of being in "denial" about toxic behavior, understanding their ambivalence can help promote positive change.
Arif Riyanto/Unsplash
Source: Arif Riyanto/Unsplash

He is in such denial about his behavior and how bad this has gotten!"

There are certain words we can come to realize are not so helpful in helping others, in part because they are not conveying meaning, but rather negative judgment and outright stigma. The other part of “not so helpful,” however, is that sometimes the word is just flat out a case of mistaken identity, not meaning what we think it means—or to quote from The Princess Bride, "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

So what if the statement "he is in such denial about his behavior and how bad this has gotten” did not mean what we thought it did, but instead meant this?

I want him to see how bad his behavior has gotten, and I don’t want to see any doubt in him about changing now."

The perspective brought to bear on a given situation is an important part of effective helping, whether we are a parent, a partner, a therapist, or in some other helping role. Central to empirically supported ways of helping is the perspective that “behaviors make sense”; people do things for reasons that make sense to them and serve them (i.e., they are reinforcing). If a behavior is repeated, it means we get something out of the behavior, otherwise, we stop.

This fact of human nature shows up painfully at times since there are behaviors that make sense at a given moment in time but have significant negative or destructive downsides at other moments in time, as can be the case with substance use. The downsides can range from annoying and disappointing to scary and dangerous. When people we care about move toward the scary or dangerous end of the range, our urgency for wanting the behavior to stop can grow, along with our increasingly big struggle to understand how the behaviors “make sense” (although they still do).

Understanding ambivalence

When we face this urgency, it helps to remind ourselves of ambivalence, a natural outgrowth of the fact that “behaviors make sense.” It is exactly because the original behavior (smoking pot, eating too much sugar, exercising too much, etc.) made sense that stepping away from it and moving towards other behaviors can be a start-and-stop process. The original behavior still makes sense, and still has a voice, even if the new one is better, more desired, or less annoying or scary to us. Unfortunately, we don’t have an erase button in our brains. Instead, we have to learn to add new behaviors and consistently resist the pull to the old behavior while the new ones become a habit. This learning process takes time and there are often setbacks as new behaviors take hold.

Understood in this light, the statement “he is in such denial about his behavior” is usually not true and instead often reflects our frustration and struggle to understand how the behavior makes sense to the person engaging in it. What is more likely is that the behavior works in some way, and there is ambivalence about making changes.

Moving away from the accusation of "denial"

Why does it matter? It is just semantics? When we label ambivalence "denial," we are likely to be angry at the person we wish would change instead of being able to step back and understand what is happening so that we can be effective in supporting change. It also causes the person we want to change to say, “I’m not in denial” and state all the reasons why the behavior makes sense.

When we understand ambivalence as a reflection of the stop-and-start process of change and not as the accusation of denial, we can help someone shift from that into more direct steps toward the new path. We can be helpful and supportive of change or incredibly unhelpful, and nobody wants that. The helpful version includes acknowledging that they are being pulled in two directions, that you understand that, and that you are hoping to respect both sides of that tug of war while supporting the new path forward. And for your part, take a breath or 10, allow that this is difficult to make room for, and know that having the grace to give them this understanding will go a long way toward positive change.

More from Carrie Wilkens, Ph.D., Jeffrey Foote, Ph.D., and Ken Carpenter Ph.D.
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