It’s not denial. I’m just selective about the reality I accept.
~ Bill Watterson
Denial is the negating of reality. It comes upon us when something happens that goes against what we think should be happening or what we want to be happening. It’s a normal reaction when something too painful occurs.
It’s as if our brain goes into protection mode and shuts down. Amazingly, we see and hear only what we want to allow in. It is not a function of intelligence or will, rather it’s a function of emotional readiness. It’s also not conscious, meaning that it can happen without our awareness that it is happening.
Designed to help us integrate painful situations, the coping mechanism of denial helps us to avoid feeling a flood of intense emotions all at once; it helps us take things piecemeal. It is a healthy, normal, and vital part of the grief process. In fact, we need denial.
The problems with denial occur when we cannot or will not move beyond it, when it continuously blinds us, or when we refuse to see and accept reality after the initial shock has passed.
Denial starts to cause problems when it won’t allow a spouse to accept that the marriage is really over. For example, spouses in denial may badger their partners into staying, or they may drag their feet with the legal proceedings. Denial is normal early in the grief process, but if it continues for too long a time, it can be quite destructive.
Usually, a person who remains stuck in denial isn’t getting adequate emotional support to accept the difficult situation. Seeking out supportive people (friends or other comforting people who also can be honest with you about what they see) or divorce professionals can help immensely when someone is stuck in this phase.
My denial protects me until I no longer need protecting.
This article has been edited and excerpted from Stronger Day By Day with permission by New Harbinger Publications, Inc, copyright © 2010, Susan Pease Gadoua is the author of Contemplating Divorce, A Step-by-Step Guide to Deciding Whether to Stay or Go (August 2008), and Stronger Day by Day: Reflections for Healing and Rebuilding After Divorce (July 2010). Susan is a licensed therapist based in the San Francisco Bay Area with an expertise in marriage and divorce.