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Are You Rearranging Deck Chairs on Your Very Own Titanic?

Why we deny what's right in front of us

Key points

  • When faced with a problem that seems insoluble, the mind sometimes tries to protect itself by pretending the problem doesn’t exist.
  • Denial can cause a people to refuse to think about their trouble, downplay it, or turn to drugs and alcohol.
  • Someone in denial may not even know or admit they have a problem.

By Austin Ratner, M.D.

Edited by Linda Michaels, Psy.D.

The Everett Collection via Canva
In the face of a crisis, "rearranging deck chairs" is a futile act of denial.
Source: The Everett Collection via Canva

Have you ever watched someone you know flailing around in the face of a crisis and thought to yourself, “It’s like they’re rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic”?

This historic and colorful phrase first appeared in print in Time Magazine just after Christmas 1969, in an article about the decline of religion.

The Time Magazine article cited an unnamed priest who compared the Catholic Church’s ineffectual attempts to attract parishioners to “shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic.” Since then, the analogy has been used to refer to any futile activity undertaken in the face of impending doom.

The idea of rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic encapsulates two mental states that go hand in hand:

Helplessness and Denial

When faced with a problem that seems insoluble and feeling helpless, the mind sometimes tries to protect itself by pretending the problem doesn’t exist or isn’t as big and threatening.

Like our Titanic inspiration, “The ship isn’t sinking! I’ll just move my deck chair from stern to bow, order a nightcap and watch the moonlight glimmer in the reflection of that iceberg over there.”

Denial is a mental strategy that may help stave off panic in the short term, but it doesn’t solve anything in the long run. Worse, denial can even create tragedies that might have been avoided.

Denial played a role in killing more than 1500 of the Titanic’s passengers. The ship’s builders and operators deemed it “unsinkable” and launched it on the North Atlantic without enough lifeboats. Their denial worsened when it was reported sunk with massive loss of life.

The following morning, a vice president of the White Star Line denied reports that the Titanic had indeed sunk. “We place absolute confidence in the Titanic,” he declared to the press. “We believe the boat is unsinkable!”

At the very moment he spoke those words, the Titanic was sitting on the ocean floor. His denial may have offered temporary consolation to those around him, but the dead could not be raised with lies.

Most of us face subtler problems than a sinking ship, but problems of love, career, illness, regret, guilt, shame, and more can feel just as catastrophic and insoluble. They can cause us to reach for the morphine of denial. We may refuse to think about our trouble, downplay it, or turn to drugs and alcohol. Once addicted, it can be hard even to admit that, as legendary comedian, Henny Youngman conveyed in his classic one-liner, “When I read about the evils of drinking, I gave up reading.”

Most problems have solutions. Even the passengers on the Titanic would have been better off making rafts of their deck chairs than denying the reality of the sinking ship. But we sometimes feel helpless and engage in denial anyway, perhaps because big problems make us feel small like we did when we were children.

Dangers can seem apocalyptic in size to children, who don’t have many tools to help themselves or influence the world around them. They resort to magical solutions like hiding under the covers. Denial is one of those old, irrational strategies from childhood that lingers in the unconscious mind to handle danger even though it can exacerbate the problems at hand.

What’s the way out of this situation? If someone’s in denial, like the hypothetical drinker in the Henny Youngman joke, they may not even know or admit they have a problem. And if someone else tries to force them to admit to problems they’re desperately fleeing or calls out the dangers of not dealing with them, that could make the denial take hold even more strongly.

Psychoanalytic psychotherapists help their patients see their problems more clearly by assisting them to see their feelings more clearly. It’s an old principle of Freudian psychology that feelings distort thoughts and perceptions, and recent studies by cognitive-behavioral psychologists support the concept as well.

If you become more familiar with your feelings—especially ones rooted in your childhood—you can learn to separate feeling from fact. That helps to shrink factual problems down to size. (Now, there’s a legitimate reason to call a psychotherapist a “shrink”!) So often, the self-knowledge derived from psychotherapy reveals that the biggest problems we face are ones we created in the first place, like denial. Fortunately, what’s constructed in the mind can be deconstructed with a bit of help from psychotherapy.

About the author

Austin Ratner, M.D. is a writer in Brooklyn, NY. He is the author of The Psychoanalyst’s Aversion to Proof as well as several novels. He received his M.D. from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and is a member of the American Psychoanalytic Association.

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