The Habit of Denial

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         It was in a conversation with my younger brother Earl , not too many years ago, that the root of our emotional problem came into bold relief. Thinking myself to have matured substantially by that time, I presumed to offer my brother some feedback on his lagging psychological development. “I can’t seem to make contact with you,” I goaded. “It’s like you’re ‘not home,’ emotionally.”

Earl deflected the provocation briefly before retaliating with the following jab of his own. “Don’t expect me to feel one way or the other about you. I can’t give you what you want. It’s nothing personal; I just do not feel.

I was taken aback by the incisiveness with which my brother thus cut to the chase, both of our interaction and of his psychological predicament. I asked if he had always been this way, or could he recall ever having had a “feeling”? He responded without a moment’s hesitation: “I was about seven. Dad was ranting at Mother, and I was standing there, crying. ‘Why is Daddy mad?’ I asked. ‘It’s not Daddy,’ Mother answered, ‘it’s the alcohol.’”

Earl’s immediate retrieval of this incident spoke volumes to me. We’d grown up with an alcoholic father and a passive-aggressive mother. Larry would verbally abuse Ruth each night, while she made herself out to be both morally superior and impervious to the abuse. The effect of her pronouncement, “It’s not Daddy, it’s the alcohol,” was to anesthetize my brother emotionally by depersonalizing the experience. In that one fell swoop, she thus severed emotional effect (and affect) from behavioral cause.

This may be how all psychological defenses begin. We try to protect those we love by distracting them from upsetting events. But when Earl asked, “Why is Daddy mad?” Daddy truly was angry. And Earl was in touch both with the force of that anger and his own resulting turmoil. From that day forward, however, he stopped allowing his interactions to register emotionally. Psychology calls this “denial.” My father had hurt Earl’s feelings; my mother had relieved him of them.

Denying or depersonalizing our pain seems to make sense when, as in the case of 7-year-old Earl, there’s really nothing we can do about the external circumstances that are causing it. But the habit of denial robs us of the ability to enjoy improved relational conditions when they finally arrive. Subconsciously, we continue to experience life as though still confronted with whatever first put our feelings on hold. And to rationalize this muted but now incongruent distress, we make sure to keep a supply of current time adversity on hand. (Psychology calls this “the repetition compulsion.”)

In summary, my siblings and I were taught to depersonalize the most personal of our interactions. Since it made no sense to be angry at an inanimate bottle of alcohol, Mother’s implicit advice was to disregard the emotional upheaval we were experiencing on a nightly basis; to “tune out” the most dramatic events of our interpersonal lives.

Our father would then reinforce this denial by waking up stone sober each morning, as though nothing untoward had happened the night before. This was our positive male role model, strong and handsome; competent and unemotional. Emotion thus came to be equated in our minds with the destructive tirades “the alcohol” inflicted on us each evening. The choice seemed either to blame the alcohol (like Mother) or become the alcohol (like Father).