How many times in your life has something happened that was so hard to believe, that it actually hurt to believe it? You know what I mean… it’s that truth you don’t want to hear. It’s like the people who can’t believe the holocaust happened because it was just so atrocious. Or, like the email I got from a woman who found out her husband is cheating on her. It’s very hard to accept a truth that hurts us, but if we don’t, we systematically destroy ourselves.
Denial is the topic for the day.
(The following is a loose transcript of today’s episode)
Today’s quick quote is by Eve Ensler and it’s this:
“I think the greatest illusion we have is that denial protects us. It’s actually the biggest distortion and lie. In fact, staying asleep is what’s killing us.”
If you believe denial is protecting you from feeling worse the delusion will catch up with you, that’s for sure.
I received an email from a woman who knows her husband is cheating on her. She’s been married a good number of years and found out about it a few years ago.
When she approached him, he denied it as most cheaters do. She never really found concrete evidence of his extracurricular activities, but he eventually admitted to at least getting his emotional needs met by someone else.
So a few years went by and she decided that she wanted to make the marriage work again. She wanted to move on from her tortured thoughts and put her effort into making things work for both of them.
You’re aware of what those tortured thoughts are, I’m sure. After someone betrays you, thoughts like, “I wonder if they’ll betray me again” and “I don’t feel safe anymore trusting this person” and of course the most important one, “How long has this been going on, and has it happened before?” plague you.
After someone cheats on you, these thoughts are almost impossible to avoid because all the trust and security you felt with the closest person in your life is now destroyed. Whatever safety you felt with them is demolished, and you suddenly have no idea what to believe as truth and what is a lie.
This writer of this email, I’ll call her Mary, was sick of these thoughts and decided she’d had enough. She wanted her life and her marriage back, so she moved on from that negative thinking and decided to start fresh. But, she does admit that she probably went into a form of denial, because those torturous thoughts were probably still there in the background.
Denial is a strong theme in today’s episode because it can systematically, bit by bit, disintegrate your passion for life. One of my definitions for denial is justifying poisonous beliefs.
Let me reword that a little so that you are aware of what it really is:
Denial is when you justify beliefs that are poisonous to you.
When you choose to believe something that deep down you know not to be true, it eats away at you day by day. And soon, you develop new ways to cope at darker levels of being.
In fact, you create a whole new homeostatic state, where you level off. Homeostasis is when everything is functioning normally. So where you were before you started the process of denial was your previous homeostatic state. So if you were at all unhappy or unfulfilled then, you’re going to be even more unhappy and fulfilled after denial kicks in.
Then you’ll start living life from this new place and thinking that’s as good as things can get. Being in this place changes your perspective. You start thinking things like, “Well, at least it’s not any worse. I can live with this because it could be worse.”
It could always be worse, that’s true. And by accepting things the way they are, that’s actually a healthy perspective. But if you accept things as they are and you are still unhappy, you create misery in your life.
I’ve spoken before how my mom created her own misery for 40 years living with an alcoholic. As long as he didn’t beat her, life was good!
What a statement! Imagine if you heard someone you love say something like that about you to their friend?
How about a statement like, “I guess we’ll be okay as long as he doesn’t smoke crack around the baby.”
What level of homeostasis are you at when you make a statement like that? What is your quality of life when you are in so much denial, that you are willing to allow such toxicity into your world?
I’m not here to get on an anti-drug soapbox at all. I was just using that as an example. In fact, the only thing I care about is if you are moving towards a fulfilling life and if you are in denial about the life you have now.
Denial is powerful because it really does come down to accepting darker and darker levels of reality. You’ve heard the analogy of the frog in slowly boiling water right?
It’s kind of a morbid anecdote but the story goes if you put a frog in cool water, it’s fine. It will be happy, if a frog can be such a thing, and will stay there if nothing tempts it to leave.
Then, when the water is heated very slowly, the frog won’t notice the change in temperature and continue to sit there. Think of this part as the things that happen in life that you start ignoring or denying so that you can avoid dealing with some hard to handle emotions.
Then the water heats up more, coming to a boil and the frog dies.
This is what happens when denial continues. You get to avoid some pain now, and face the brunt of it later in a big way. You avoid the pain by denying what you feel and making excuses in an attempt to justify what’s happening in your world. If you can create good reasons for bad things, you can survive the boiling water just a little longer.
You know, even frogs will jump out of water starting to get warm. The metaphor is just that: A story.
It’s true scientists did test this theory in the 1800’s, but most scientists and zoologists today concur that a frog will get more and more agitated and jump ship.
But some people don’t. That’s because people who rely on their denial to get through life don’t see their trouble as boiling water. They see it as “not bad enough to jump”.
When there’s a fire in the kitchen, and you’re in the bedroom, it’s really not bad enough to jump out the window yet. So you might as well wait until it reaches the bedroom, right?
I’m being facetious of course, but the meaning you give to your situation will define how you respond to the situation. And, how bad you determine a situation to be comes from how you evaluate it against the standards you’ve set for your life.
And the longer you’ve been in denial, the lower your standards have gotten.
Mary’s standards have come way down since she first got married. Her husband cheated before, and he’s cheating again, but since she’s been in the boiling water for so long, she doesn’t realize she’s being cooked alive.
This is more true than you realize.
First of all, if you catch someone cheating and they deny it, that is the first sign that they’ve lied to you about other things too. When lying comes that easy, then you are likely only at the tip of the iceberg.
It’s not like that in every case, but more often than not, a cheater who doesn’t come clean after getting caught has the ability to lie directly to your face without an issue. Of course, they were lying all along otherwise it wouldn’t be considered cheating. But when they’re directly confronted and they don’t speak the truth right away, then lies come easy for this person.
How safe do you feel around someone who has no problem lying to you? How loved do you feel? How supported do you feel?
There are those of you listening who have cheated and some of you got caught and fessed up right away. You may have cleaned the past and started over with the same partner or someone else.
You may never cheat again because you know how painful it was and how it made the other person feel. And you may have learned what needs weren’t being met in your relationship and you now make sure those needs are met before you go seeking anyone else to fulfill them.
Then there are those of you who’ve been cheated on and it’s possible it wasn’t the first time. With Mary, it’s not the first, nor will it be the last.
I once called cheating “emotional murder” and I still stand by that comment. It’s the ultimate form of betrayal because the person you trust most becomes the least trustful person in your life.
Your emotions are murdered and your trust is destroyed. And if you’re the cheater, you either make a commitment to yourself to never again travel that road, or you continue to wreak havoc in other people’s lives.
And if you’ve been cheated on, this is where the hard decisions are made. Do you stay? Do you go? Were you having a lot of trouble in your relationship and the cheating was just another nail in the coffin? Or did everything seem fine, yet the cheating happened anyway?
What are your values? What do you value most in a partner? I talked about values in the mini episode I did a few days ago. When you figure out what you value most in a partner, you make decisions and take action in alignment with those values so that you will get the relationship you want.
On top of that, what are you willing to do if your values get stomped on? What length are you willing to go for yourself? How much are you willing to honor yourself?
If one of your highest values in a relationship is honesty, and the person you’re with cheats on you, that means that person can’t even meet your top value. If someone can’t meet your top value, the rest of the values typically don’t matter.
What’s important to you about your intimate relationships? There’s an exercise I go through called Values Elicitation where I walk you through listing what your most important values are in the major areas of life. You can purchase that worksheet at theoverwhelmedbrain.com – just click on Worksheets.
But, let me give you the quick and dirty method just in case you don’t have the worksheet: It’s this, and since we’re on the subject, I’ll word this for relationships: Ask yourself, What’s important to me about a relationship? And come up with all the things that are important to you.
For instance, when I do this, one of my highest values is respect. If I find that my partner is not respecting me, I address it immediately. If she continues to disrespect me, I leave.
That’s it. I value my values so much, that I’m willing to do whatever it takes to honor them.
Why do I risk so much?
Because I know that once I put my values behind other people’s wants, needs or dysfunctions, I become less of who I am.
You become less of who you are when you put the needs of others before your own
I realize this sounds selfish, but you have to be some level of selfish to honor your personal boundaries. You have to be some level of selfish to build a healthy ego and build upon your self-worth and self-esteem.
If you are lacking in self-worth and self-esteem, you can’t afford to put other’s wants and needs before your own.
Being in denial is putting other people’s wants and needs before your own. My mom denied that her situation was as bad as it was, because at least she wasn’t getting beaten by her husband.
And the times physical abuse did occur, she left.
But how low must your self-esteem, self-worth, and toleration for a barely acceptable quality of living be to get to the point where, “…at least I’m not getting beaten”?
Poisoned people make toxic decisions.
When you live in denial, you are poisonous to yourself and those around you. It’s true, you are also poisonous to those around you. You are poisonous to family and friends that love you, and you are also poisonous to the people that you are in denial about!
Yup, by denying your own realizations about what’s going on in your world, you are also denying the toxic people in your life the chance to learn, grow and heal.
I bet you didn’t see that coming, did you?
We’ll touch on that shortly.
The reason we go into denial about things is because we don’t want to believe they’re true. We don’t want to believe someone cheated on us, or lied to us or treated us badly or talked behind our back or whatever, because it does two things:
1. It causes us to face our own bad decisions
2. It forces us to make a new decision that we know will be hard
The first one is a realization that we made a bad decision. That’s hard to admit sometimes. I know people that will argue their viewpoint even after they’ve learned they are wrong. But they stay so attached to being right, that they actually fight to the end just to feel better about being right.
Denial is an attempt to feel better about the decisions you made. After all, if you submit and admit you were wrong, you feel like less of a person.
But, denial does that automatically… Denial makes you less of a person. What you deny slowly comes to a boil and you never jump out of the scalding water to save yourself.
It’s the preference to be boiled alive than to face a moment of hard decisions and move on with your life.
That’s the second thing denial does: It forces us to make decisions and take action that we know will change our life in some way. We might have to confront someone, or maybe choose to accept a reality that is too hard to accept.
You’ve met people in denial, right? You can tell something in their life is clearly toxic or damaging to them, and you think to yourself, “Why on earth are they still in that situation?”
Yet, when we ourselves are faced with certain events in life, we have to face some hard choices too.
After I got married, I realized that I still had a lot of judgment issues because I didn’t want to accept some of my wife’s behaviors. But, instead of leaving, I chose to stay in denial that things would eventually get better.
And that’s a major hurdle that most people who continually justify their own poisonous beliefs come up against: They think things are good enough, and will eventually get better.
My mom thought, “Hey, it can’t get any worse! So I might as well stay married and live in the same house with this abusive man until he leaves.”
And 44 years later, he did leave! But do you know what 44 years of denial does to your mind and spirit? It’s that frog in a slowly boiling pot again. It’s hot, your body hurts, you’re agitated, and you keep on keepin’ on another day.
Day after day of stored resentment chewing away at your insides. It’s awful, and it will change your entire life because your world becomes how you feel most of the time.
That makes sense, right? How you feel most of the time will be how you view the world. I had a family member that felt anxious all the time, and they also saw the world as a terrible place filled with violence.
The truth is, the world has every type of person in it, some terrible, some wonderful, but how you feel and what you experience most of the time in your own world is how you view the world.
I know people who don’t like “people”! When you get to the point where you don’t like anyone, what you’re really saying is that you are not comfortable with all the aspects of who you are. We all have a dark and a light side, and we all have in an in between.
And, we are all capable of some pretty heinous things. We won’t all follow through on them, and that’s what separates many of us. But when you feel negative all the time, that’s pretty much all you see in the world too. It’s those filtered glasses you wear when you’ve experienced certain things in life.
When I moved out of my family home, I saw lots of alcoholics. When an abused woman or man gets out of a relationship, they see lots of abusers.
In fact, we draw those people into our lives because that’s who we resonate with most. In other words, even when you don’t want toxic people in your life, you still bring them into your life because you feel the most comfortable with them.
You will always be attractive and attracted to people in your life that are at the same level of personal growth and development that you are. The reason for that is because the more you work on yourself, the more you recognize dysfunction.
And the more you recognize dysfunction, the more you don’t want it in your life. It’s hard to recognize the dysfunction you’re in, which is why dysfunctional people still show up in your life. And because you are most comfortable at that level of “function”, you attract and are attracted to those people.
I hope that makes sense, because that is the #1, or maybe #2 reason people stay in denial:
You can’t be in denial about what’s bad for you unless you realize it’s bad for you.
When you are mentally healthy and strong, you sense people that aren’t so much. And, because you are aware of less healthy people, you tend to not be attracted to them. And if they’re attracted to you, you have enough self-love and self-awareness to know what’s good and what’s bad for you.
If I attracted someone who drank a lot of alcohol, even though they could have almost everything I want in a mate, I would still not pursue any sort of intimate relationship with them. My level of dysfunction is not as high as it used to be.
I still have a ways to go, as we all do, but the more your grow, the more you will attract those who have also grown.
I saw this with my current relationship. When we met, I had no intention of dating her at all. I told her flat out, I’m not interested in dating. She loved it because we could be friends without those awkward “getting to know you” moments.
However, it was so strange how our relationship developed because we had learned many of the same lessons in life. We both knew what we wanted in a relationship and we wouldn’t settle for anything less than that.
Turns out we met and stayed good friends because we were both at the same level of dysfunction in our lives.
I say “dysfunction” not as a bad thing, but as a way to identify that we all have some growth to do somewhere, and to admit that we do is to stay humble and open-minded. We are all highly functional, but have some dysfunction otherwise we wouldn’t need to talk about this stuff.
Anyway, we noticed how similar our backgrounds were. In fact, they were eerily similar, down the state we grew up in and how close we lived to each other. Mind you, we met for the first time in different states, so the fact that we met up at all, and had so many similarities is just mind-blowing.
But that’s what happens. The more you learn, heal and grow in yourself, the greater the likelihood that you’ll attract someone along the same level.
And I’ve noticed when you have more dysfunction in your life than not, you tend to meet people that will amplify that dysfunction. And my guess for that is that way down at a deeper, subconscious level, you want that for yourself.
It sounds strange, I realize, but when you are emotionally triggered by your partner, it’s exactly what you needed because those triggers need to be dealt with. Your partner gives you a chance to deal with your triggers because they will trigger you!
In other words, you have a chance to figure out what bothers you when your partner causes emotional upset in you. And when you know what bothers you, you get to make healthy choices.
The first choice is to realize, “Wow, that bothers me! I have to work on that in myself. I don’t want to be bothered by that.”
And the other choice is to say, “Wow, that bothers me! That’s something I don’t want in my life. I am going to let them know that if they can’t change, I can’t stay.”
Of course, the third choice really isn’t a healthy choice at all, and that’s the denial process. That’s when you come up with a new, poisonous belief system that requires you to create an entire foundation of reasons for it to exist.
That foundation is made up of your justifications for your new belief system’s existence. After all, when you don’t want to believe something is true, you instead create a new reality where it isn’t.
You see how that works, right? There’s something in your life that you don’t want to accept, so you create a new reality where that thing doesn’t exist. And, because you know deep down that it does exist, you create a conflict inside of you that you carry with you like disease.
That disease is denial and it breaks you like an emotional drill sergeant. You commit to this new fantasy so much that your mind and body become out of sync, and unhappiness becomes the new norm.
You will never have a satisfying, fulfilling life as long as you are in denial.
How do you know you’re in denial? And what should you do about it? Well, those are the big questions, aren’t they?
Let’s finish the show with those questions in mind.
I ended the first segment by saying toxic people stay toxic when you refuse to honor yourself. What that means is that the longer you allow that toxic person to be a part of your life, where their toxicity seeps into your spirit, the longer they will stay dysfunctional.
That doesn’t mean you are at fault for their behavior, but think about what you are allowing by not honoring yourself. Think about what you deny them by not showing them some tough love?
You deny them a chance to learn, grow and heal because by you not letting them know that they are toxic to you, or bad for you in some way, they continue to be who they are. They don’t know you have a problem with them.
It’s like your doctor withholding important information about your health because he or she is afraid of how you might react.
“Well gee, Mrs. Smith, I didn’t want you to be mad at me, so I didn’t want to tell you that you’re carrying around the black plague. I figured you’d yell at me or something.”
I realize that’s a stretch, and you certainly don’t have to tell a toxic person anything – as you can just get out of the situation. But if you stay in it, and don’t say a thing, and choose to find reasons that “it’s not so bad, it could be worse”, then you might as well be carrying around the black plague.
It’s dramatic, and I really didn’t want to say it, but I truly believe when you live in denial, you are damaging your body and spirit. You feel it, don’t you?
People in denial feel the damage inside of them. It’s in their stomach, or their chest and sometimes their head in the form of headaches. Actual, physical ailments develop when your mind and body are out of sync. And the ailments get worse the longer you hold onto to denial.
When your mind knows truth, and your body knows truth, and you try to trick either one of them, you feel bad.
A good way to test that is when you are in the middle of an argument with someone and you suddenly realize they’re right and you’re wrong. You stood your ground because you “knew” you had the truth, but then they said something that made perfect sense, making your truth… false.
You suddenly get that feeling – you know the one I’m talking about. It’s a crossroads, and you can either fess up and admit they’re right, or commit to your attachment to being right even though you know you’re wrong.
It’s that attachment to being right that causes those feelings inside your body – that desynchronization of mind and body that causes you to feel bad in some way.
When it happens to me, I feel it all in my upper torso. It’s warm, and it’s like a wave. It’s that moment of decision where you realize, “Oh crap, I’m wrong about this” and that feeling washes over you.
That same feeling happens with denial, where you know truth yet you deny it so you feel bad. If you are feeling bad most of the time, what are you denying?
The question is, how do you know you’re in denial? I mean, besides having the feeling I just described, how do you really know? How do you know what’s true and what’s not?
For the email writer Mary, whose husband is cheating on her, she thinks she might be in a new state of reality because of her denial. She’s actually considering that her marriage is “good enough” and because he’s good with the kids, maybe settling for this new way of being is the best choice for her.
Let me give you the lowdown Mary, what you are doing is destroying yourself. As long as you are in denial, you are not living your truth. You are not honoring yourself, but you are honoring a person that is cheating on you.
Think about that.
Love is when someone wants to be with you, support you, and wants nothing more than for you to be happy. Since he knows that his cheating makes you unhappy, the main ingredient for a marriage is missing, and can barely be called a marriage anymore.
By accepting a lower quality relationship, you are creating disharmony inside yourself. You feel it, I know you do! And you’ve created a new belief system that “well, everything is good enough, so maybe this is as good as it gets.”
How do you know when you’re in denial? You know when you find ways to push down your own peace and happiness in order to make things appear better than they are.
You come up with great excuses that allow people to get away with almost anything, and become more compassionate towards them than yourself.
When you lose compassion for yourself, you lose. Period. You start submitting and giving in to what you believe can’t change.
You justify a bad life so you don’t have to make tough decisions.
Mary, and anyone else who lives in denial, the answer to your situation is clear inside of you, but your denial keeps it clouded.
For Mary, it really depends on how she defines marriage. One way I define marriage is your commitment to your partner’s happiness. It’s pretty much the same as love to me. When you’re both committed to each other’s happiness, you both live a rewarding and enriched life together.
But maybe Mary’s definition of marriage is being with someone who loves her only when it’s convenient for him, betrays her when there’s an opportunity to, and is much happier fulfilling his own needs than hers.
I’m being a little harsh, and I’m sorry about that, but Mary, you really need to determine what your definition of marriage is. Not how you define it today in your place of denial, but how you defined it before you became unhappy.
How about you? Not just Mary, but anyone who is unhappy listening to this show right now. Are you in denial about something? Are there things you don’t want to be true but realize they probably are? Maybe you don’t want to know that your underage kids are having sex or experimenting with drugs. Maybe you don’t want to know that your spouse is cheating on you or lying about something.
Are there things going on in your own house that you don’t want to know about? Well, you do want to know, but knowing the truth might be too hard to bear so you shield yourself from it?
I don’t mean to spread fear and doubt, I’m just posing questions to help you explore yourself a bit. If you are emphatically not in denial, then these questions aren’t for you. Unless you are in denial about being in denial.
That’s a paradox that we’ll have to unravel on another episode perhaps. But let’s just agree that denial is destructive. I know someone who was sexually abused as a child by her father, and many years later she found out her mom knew all along.
This is much more common than you might think. People get into situations that they feel they have no say or control over. In reality, we all have a say and we can all do something about it.
It could get us hurt, but that’s why have friends and authority to help us out. There are parents out there who stand back and let things happen not because they want to, but because they fear what would happen to them if they stepped in.
This is a real fear, I completely understand. But denial of suffering does not end the suffering, it only prolongs it.
This is what I mean when I say denial is destructive. It’s poison to a family network and it never ends until someone makes a stand and follows through with truth.
For about 8 years, I lived with a woman that I wanted things to work out with. But year after year, things declined. They got better in some ways, but the most prevalent issues never changed, and actually got worse.
The issues themselves didn’t get worse, but the bad feelings I got about the issues did. And those feelings, that disharmony inside of me, just ate away at me bit by bit. I kept thinking things would get better so I never addressed the truth inside of me:
That things would never change.
It’s hard, I know! I held onto the belief that things would change in my marriage, but they never did. I figured things would get better – they have to, but they didn’t?
I mean, how do you really know if something is true or not?
It comes down to this: It doesn’t matter if it’s true, it matters if you have any doubt
Doubt is what brings the fear and starts the denial process. When you doubt, and you cannot find the truth, then you might need to just step away from the situation until you know the truth.
Some situations are harder to step away from then others, but if you can, you’ll be able to think more clearly without the common influencers in your life.
You will know truth when you aren’t boiling in the waters of denial day after day. You will learn truth when you get away from everything that causes you doubt.
Just step away and wait for new thoughts to come to your mind. Denial happens when you’re in the midst of everything going on. When you can step out of that situation in any way, and see it from a new perspective, you’ll find your truth.
You know how easy it is to look at a friend’s situation and tell them exactly what’s going on, but your friend can’t see what you see? It’s the same with your own life.
Step back, and look at your situation as if you were your own best friend. After all, friends are good at spotting the truths we can’t see. We may not always like the truths they see, but it helps to have a perspective you didn’t have before.
As for Mary, you asked me in your letter, “Why do I put up with someone who disrespects me?”
The answer is because you’ve lowered your own self-worth by staying in a situation you know is poisonous to you.
And the longer you stay in a poisonous situation, the easier it becomes to look down at yourself and come up with justifications that you deserve to be treated with disrespect.
You just need to step out of that place, even if in your own mind, just to remember that your value gets rebuilt little by little the more you stand up and take charge of your life.
Start honoring your personal boundaries in small ways, and you will rebuild your foundation. And soon, those who step on you won’t be able to put their foot high enough to do it anymore.
You will be that empowered.
Start with compassion for yourself. If you truly have compassion for yourself first, you will realize that you are worthy and deserving of respect.
Compassion for yourself is helping yourself in any way you can. Start with you, and the rest will fall into place.
The one thing I want you to get from this episode is that denial is the key to unhappiness.
When you deny yourself from saying what you want to say and believing what you know is true, you slow life down to a halt. It’s like greater things are waiting for you to stop denying and start living your truth. And when you stop denying, those greater things happen!
You may not like facing reality, but once you face it head on, at least there’s some sort of closure – or the beginning of closure.
I don’t know what your beliefs are spiritually, but there’s probably some cosmic order to the universe out there that, if we are out of alignment with it, we slow down and things fall apart until we get back on track.
Denial derails us. It takes us off the track and keeps us there until we start being truthful with ourselves. And even if you’re not spiritual in the least, you still feel it in your body when you are denying yourself what you know to be truth. You feel it through and through. You can deny all you want, but you can’t escape the signals from your own body.
It’s time to trust your instincts and realize that truth: that you are feeling something for a reason. Whether it turns out to be true or not isn’t the point, but honoring yourself is. Sometimes you need to step away and return to your own power again. You can be so embroiled in a situation that you can no longer see it clearly, so get a fresh perspective and view it again with new eyes.
When you do that, you’ll be able to step into your power and be firm in your decisions and actions, so that you can create the life you want. This will help you discover what I already know to be true about you, that you are amazing.
Great episode, Paul. Self-delusion can become so pervasive and crippling, and it can sometimes take half a lifetime to root it out of your brain entirely. You almost have to re-learn how to think. I kept Ockham’s Razor taped to my computer monitor for several years until I felt I’d internalized it.
Thank you Kelly! That’s a great philosophy to keep: The path of least assumption… I love it. Thank you for sharing this. I think that is a very healthy thing to adopt! I appreciate your comment.
🙂 Thank you!