By Joyce Parker Ph.D.
Denial is a powerful and dangerous thing. It can cause otherwise intelligent people to refuse to see what is directly in front of their noses. A person can drink a six pack of beer a day, pass out on the couch every night, wake up with a hangover every morning, listen to the spouse complain bitterly about the effect drinking is having on the family and yet continue to deny a drinking problem. Denial can make an otherwise intelligent family, allow liquor at their holiday get togethers, even though certain family members always get drunk, cause a disruption and ruin the gathering for the others. Families are deeply affected by denial whether the denial is about alcoholism or some other problem that the family doesn't want to recognize and deal with. Denial affects every member of the family. When I talk about the dangers of denial with patients, I use an analogy that is well known in Alcoholics Anonymous and Alanon groups. Living with alcoholism, or another serious problem that is unacknowledged, is like having an elephant in the living room.
Families know that an elephant doesn't belong in the living room. It's too big, takes up too much space, can wreck havoc on the furniture and break lots of precious family heirlooms. It can mess on the carpet. When a family has an elephant in the living room, they don't usually like outsiders to come into the living room. Once invited in, they might observe the elephant and wonder what it is doing there. They might ask too many questions. They might suggest that the elephant be removed from the living room. Or they just might pass judgement on a family who would keep an elephant where it certainly doesn't belong, and where it can cause so much damage.
The worst danger, however, is to the children of the family. Children see the world as it is. They are without guile. So if there is an elephant in their living room, they will comment on it. They might come into the living room and say, "Hey, what is that elephant doing in the living room?" In a family that supports denial, the answer will be: "What elephant, there's no elephant in our living room." or "Don't worry about that elephant, we can put a doily on top of it and pretend it's a coffee table." When children are told to ignore the elephant, they become confused. They know instinctively that elephants don't belong in living rooms. But if their parents insist that they do, children will begin to deny their own feelings and perceptions. Young children trust adults. They believe what parents tell them. So they will believe their parents and stop believing in themselves. This obfiscation may happen so early in their childhoods that they have no memory of it. But they will grow up not trusting themselves. This leaves them vulnerable later on to denying obvious dangers in their own lives. They may choose an alcoholic spouse or allow others to hurt them or take advantage of them. They usually don't know how to stand up for themselves very well. They might assert themselves in inappropriate or self-destructive ways. They may become alcoholics, unaware of the impact that alcoholism has on their lives and their families.
That is why, in all the twelve step programs, the first step to recovery is always to admit the problem. Coming out of denial is a painful process. But it is also freeing. Coming out of denial allows people to take control of their lives again, to be able to see more clearly what work needs to be done. Denial holds people in its grip. When people free themselves from denial, they can begin the process of getting the elephant out of the living room.
Parker is a psychotherapist in practice in Torrance. She is a member of the Independent Psychotherapy Network.
The author of this article, and founder of the Therapyinla.com website, Joyce Parker, passed away in 2011. To honor her we are keeping her articles posted at this website.
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