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Elephant in the Room

Esther Rabi

Everyone is in denial about something; just try denying it and watch your friends make a list. But while it’s potentially destructive, denial can provide temporary relief when facing a hardship, and some level of denial is essential in healthy relationships. When it helps, when it hinders — and how to tell the difference.

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

Denial isn’t just a river in Egypt —  it’s a mind game we indulge in to evade pain. That’s why we try to avoid even talking about it. Since the experiences we’re trying to deny are “too terrible for words,” we use euphemisms such as “yeneh machlah” and “passed away.” We don’t even like to talk about denying; instead, we talk about “the elephant in the room,” which means that there’s a major problem that everyone’s pretending doesn’t exist, because they prefer not to talk about it. We also “turn a blind eye,” “look the other way,” and “turn a deaf ear” to people’s distress or bad behavior, because as long as we aren’t aware, we don’t have to feel bad.Like the saying goes: “I’m not in denial. I’m just very selective about the reality I accept.” First Line of DefenseMalka’s husband of 65 years has just had a brain hemorrhage. She sits by his bed day after day, stroking his hand and talking to him, though he never responds. The doctors tell her he won’t recover, but she says, “I know he’ll be all right. He’s a strong man.” She’s not ready just yet to face life without him, so she develops an effective defense mechanism: denial.Denial is the first step in coming to grips with a trauma, according toDr.ElisabethKübler-Ross, the Swiss-American psychiatrist who wrote the groundbreaking On Death and Dying (1969), in which she introduces the five stages of grief. Denial protects Malka from the emotional shock and intense grief of being alone. It lets her shut out the new reality and develop a false, preferable reality. That’s why it’s called a “defense mechanism”; it defends her from a sorrow that’s too intense to tolerate. As she gathers the emotional resources to cope with her new reality, the denial will slowly dissipate. In time, the trauma is sublimated — it’s put on a back burner in her mind, where it’s neither quite forgotten nor quite remembered. Eventually, as Malka becomes better able to accept her distress, her denial will break down and she’ll be able to deal with the pain it contained. 

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