Old Dogs learn to swim in Denial

by Rebecca Crichton

As I write my way through the continuing ‘Big D’s’ for my Undiscussables list, Denial, something I know well, presented itself as worth exploring.

Perhaps you know some of the famous one-liners out there. There’s the one often attributed to Mark Twain, but since he died in 1910 and its first known use is 1931, that seems unlikely. Al Franken frequently used it on SNL: “Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.” Then there’s the country music song from 1993: “Call me Cleopatra because I’m the queen of denial.”  

The concept of denial as a defense mechanism was first developed and expounded by Anna Freud working with her father Sigmund’s ideas about the unconscious. For her, defense mechanisms are unconscious strategies whereby people protect themselves from anxious thoughts or feelings.

I often share one of my own strategies for dealing with difficult thoughts and possible eventualities. I call it ‘conscious denial.’ I employ it when there is a medical situation that feels scary or threatening or something else that requires holding options open as different scenarios present themselves. I assume an attitude of open-endedness, not allowing or indulging in worst-case scenarios. I try to stay as neutral and, if possible, positive until the information solidifies.

I remember a friend wanting to pray for me when I had my first Mohs procedure to remove a Basal Cell Carcinoma. She didn’t know what to pray for. We knew it was cancer; we knew the procedure would remove it; but we didn’t know how much it would affect how I looked.

We decided that she could pray for the ‘best possible outcome.’ That felt right and for that procedure, the outcome was good, the scar almost unnoticeable. I often share that wish with people facing difficult situations, whether medical or otherwise.  

In my exploration of Denial, I ventured into one of the most problematic social issues facing us.

I Googled Chat GPT, the AI (Artificial Intelligence) app that has generated a whole new world of worry and hope. I typed: What are the benefits of Denial? Within seconds, it produced a well-written summary.

“Denial, in psychological terms, refers to a defense mechanism that individuals may employ to protect themselves from an uncomfortable or distressing reality.” It continued with a caveat: “While denial can provide temporary relief or a sense of emotional security, it is generally considered unhealthy and can have several negative consequences.” It then outlined some potential perceived benefits of denial “for the sake of providing a balanced response.”

It listed five benefits that made sense to me.

  1. Emotional protection
  2. Reduced anxiety
  3. Preservation of self-esteem
  4. Maintaining relationships
  5. Sense of control

Finally, my friendly AI source reminded me:

“It is important to note that these perceived benefits of denial are often short-lived and can have long-term negative effects on mental health, relationships, and personal growth. Facing reality, seeking appropriate support, and developing healthy coping mechanisms are generally more beneficial in the long run.”

I couldn’t have put it better myself!

Then I read the final warning: “Chat GPT may produce inaccurate information about people, places, or facts.” 

I came away with the uncomfortable mixture of wonder, bemusement, and fear that AI has wrought on the world.  

I recognize Denial as a mechanism that can both help or harm me. It’s up to me to discern how to use it well. When I tell myself that I can have a piece of chocolate decadence cake for dinner – maybe it won’t wake me up at 2:00 AM, the fast forward button stuck in my brain’s tapes – I learn again that is wrong thinking and behavior. My body isn’t in denial, my mind is!