Denial Makes the World Go Round

“Everyone is in denial about something; just try denying it and watch friends make a list.” An article in the New York Times looks at research on denial and comes to the conclusion that far from being a destructive force it is a necessary part of life, which both protects us and actually helps us to form and nourish relationships.

“Everyone is in denial about something; just try denying it and watch friends make a list.” An article in the New York Times looks at research on denial and comes to the conclusion that far from being a destructive force it is a necessary part of life, which both protects us and actually helps us to form and nourish relationships.

Seeing denial as a spectrum “from benign inattention to passive acknowledgment to full-blown, willful blindness” on which individuals and all kinds of human groupings sit, allows us to have a more nuanced and realistic view rather than slapping on the ‘denial’ label to mean that someone is totally out of touch with reality — and it’s not us. The ability to tune out or switch off is necessary to live with all kinds of human suffering — and if we did not employ this tactic it is hard to see how we could survive.

The trick is to see when action is most necessary. We can’t react constructively to every situation, and it could be argued that if we don’t even want to be constructive, we may be best off not reacting at all. In this case we aren’t really talking of denial in the strict Freudian sense of some information not filtering through to consciousness at all, but a choice on a certain level not to react to the information. This can be a kind of silent social pact, which while it creates pressure, also keeps people together. “My mother knows that I know she knows that I…” insert fact about your lifestyle that your mother finds unpleasant.

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An anthropological study cited in the article found that once players in a game had established relationships of trust, they were willing to overlook many selfish violations from those they knew, while cutting off strangers after a single violation. When the simulation was run over many generations the rate of overlooking trust violations held up and so did the existence of stable groups. Another series of quoted studies found that partners who idealise each other are more likely to be satisfied with their relationship and stay together.

It looks as if by imagining a positive fantasy land, and acting as if it were real, we actually create a stable and satisfying social system held together by various kinds of overlooking and forgiveness. Where is morality in all this? People tend to overlook it, assuming that people are doing their best and go wrong sometimes, rather than actively calculating to deceive or wrong others.

This system seems to be the a good-enough way for us all to rub along together — but as many a client in a counselling room will attest, it also creates conspiracies of silence in which individuals pay the price.

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