For children, it’s one of the best defenses to help survive trauma, to see only the parts of their life that resonate with what they wish to see and can tolerate seeing. I know that was true for me and I know it to be true for the majority of my patients.
However, when we pass through childhood and enter adolescence and adulthood, denial no longer serves us in the same ways. Instead of protecting us, ultimately it does just the opposite.
An obvious example is a person who experiences physical symptoms that are clearly indicative of a disease, but the fear to confront what may be happening causes a delay in consulting a physician. The person’s mind conveniently blocks the awareness of whatever symptoms are being experienced because the fear of discovering the truth is too overwhelming. Instead, an unconscious decision is made to defend against such fear by blocking (denying) the awareness of any and all symptoms.
If you’re wondering why I’m writing about DENIAL on the day before VALENTINE’S DAY, it’s because as with any holiday, those who are alone or feeling vulnerable – no matter what the reason – will give themselves permission to self-medicate, to eat comfort foods, to do almost anything that will allow them to pretend that the holiday that others may be enjoying isn’t really important to them. In convincing themselves that they don’t care, they then block whatever real feelings they are experiencing and rationalize that whatever they choose to do (which is not, in fact, healthy or helpful) is right for them to do.
First they deny. Then they rationalize. And the combination of the two often leads to greater despair and loneliness than what they felt when they were merely feeling sad or lonely.
With a sub-specialty in addiction, I have found that patients suffering from alcoholism or other addictions often relapse at such times. So, while their initial instinct may be to help themselves to feel less alone, less sad at holiday times, in wishing to reduce the anxiety of the thoughts that seem to be increasing such feelings, they turn to their untrustworthy friend – the bottle of alcohol, the quick hit, you name it – and the spiral downward begins.
Yet, relapse is far more debilitating and humiliating than whatever caused them to feel sorry for themselves. In turning to their drug of choice, they create instead the illusion of happiness for a moment in time, a moment that destroys all their many moments of healthy sobriety.
Society compounds their problem by feeding their cravings through advertising weeks in advance for the love that will be sent via chocolates, flowers, and jewels. And for anyone who knows that is not going to be what he or she will receive, feelings of depression set in and fester. Self-esteem diminishes and in its place comes the enemy of an empty feeling which needs to be filled.
There are no quick fixes, though, and there is great pain that comes with relapsing.
Our challenge as a society is to connect with family members, friends and co-workers who we know will be alone at various holidays – not just Valentine’s Day – to help them to feel less alone, to protect them from themselves and their feelings of loneliness. Whatever it takes to be a community, to make others feel that they, too, belong, will lessen the need to remain unconscious, disconnected, and so “needy” that they will suffer the consequences of denial.
Not everyone has a lover! Not everyone needs to celebrate Valentine’s Day. But, everyone needs to feel loved ~ and I believe we owe it to one another to extend ourselves – in whatever ways we feel comfortable – to those whom we know would appreciate our attention tomorrow.
We can’t deny that it will be Valentine’s Day, but we also can’t afford to deny that what it represents to most people deserves to be shared and acknowledged.
So, here’s to a day of feeling loved, of offering love, and avoiding the dangers of denial.