McGraw-Hill Concise Dictionary of Modern Medicine defines denial as this: a primitive ego defense mechanism by which a person unconsciously negates the existence of a disease or other stress-producing reality in his environment by disavowing thoughts, feelings, wishes, needs, or external reality factors that are consciously intolerable. In other words, a person pretends that a situation that is happening in their lives isn’t really happening at all. Oddly enough, however, the very mechanism people in denial use to protect themselves is the very thing that prevents them from actually helping themselves.
Considered one of the most primitive of the defense mechanisms and one of the most frequently used by individuals with an undeveloped, or immature, ability to cope with reality, denial is also usually accompanied by regression (“If I don’t think about it, it’s not real.”) and people existing in a constant state of denial and regression can pay a high price mentally, emotionally, and socially. With such harmful repercussions as a result, why do people choose to exist within these mechanisms? Sigmund Freud, the armchair psychologists psychologist, claimed that in order to reduce feelings of anxiety, human beings are driven towards rationalization. Saul McCloud, a teaching assistant at the University of Manchester, concurred stating that rationalization is the cognitive distortion of “the facts” to make an event or an impulse less threatening, or to protect the person’s self-esteem. It’s the conversation that plays out like this:
“My husband (or wife) does this (or that) behavior (or thing) repeatedly and makes me (or our family, himself, herself) look bad not because he (or she) doesn’t love me (or our family, himself, herself) but because (insert lame, overused excuse here).”
If you, or someone you know, lives in denial, you’ve heard statements similar to that one that may be about the person’s job, their family, their friends, their kid’s friend’s parents; however, most people, when making excuses like that for themselves, rationalize on a fairly conscious level. McCloud had this to say about those individuals, “For many people, with sensitive egos, making excuses comes so easy that they never are truly aware of it. In other words, many of us [they] are quite prepared to believe our [their] lies.” Sounds like a recipe for disaster for the friends and family who aren’t prepared to believe the lies. So, what are they to do when confronted with the denial and rationalization of a loved one or colleague? It’s an area where, according to another mental health professional, they had better tread lightly.
Michelle Aycock, a licensed psychotherapist and contributor for the Savannah Morning News, wrote about the impact of denial on relationships in a recent online article. Highlighting the difficulties of having a relationship with a person in denial because of the inability to confront the individual (due to the fear of repercussions), she had this to say, “Some people enjoy floating down the river of denial.” In other words, you can confront a person living in denial until you’re blue in the face but the only reaction you will most likely get is continued denial (“Your face isn’t blue at all, it’s red.”). She offers the following advice for dealing with a person using denial as a chronic coping mechanism:
Don’t try to take on or fix their problems. As difficult as it may be, let them deal with the consequences of choosing to live in denial however bad.
And for the person living in denial, she offers this:
If people are telling you you have a problem, then you probably have a problem.
Is there any hope for people in relationships with others living in denial? According to veteran psychologist, Dr. Bev Smallwood, there is. Smallwood wrote in an online post that if the person acknowledges and examines the areas in their life where they haven’t been completely honest and then, with that same honesty, reflects on her suggested activities below, there is hope.
Life is not easy and with all of the demands we are faced with in the 21st century, so it’s easy to understand why so many people choose to live in denial. Oftentimes, it’s easier than facing the ugly truth! But if are constantly living in denial because of situations and circumstances in your life that are repeated over and over again, and it’s causing the people around you to a.) not have candid conversations with you about your situations and circumstances because they know you’ll have a melt down, or b.) concur with you and your bullshit because they know you’ll have a meltdown, it might be time to step out of the river of denial and onto dry land.
I went to work for my husband eight years ago when he decided he wanted to open a beauty school and I’m pretty sure that’s when my definition of work-life balance changed. I came from a traditional corporate work background – you know the drill – go to work, do your thing, and at five o’clock, turn it off. Even with a busy sales career that required extensive travel and life as a single mom, I still managed to maintain a life, one that consisted of riding my horses, exercising, running, and spending time with friends and family. I read magazines for leisure, cleaned my own house, and on weekends went into the city for dinner with girlfriends. I had a firm grip on my career and my life; the only balance I sought was whether to ride every other day, or run every other day.
While the school was being built, I continued to work at my full-time sales career and worked part-time, recruiting students and giving tours, in the mornings before my day began, in the evenings after work, and on the weekends. It was an exciting time but neither of us noticed the candles burning at both ends, nor did we realize the habits we were creating at the time would haunt us even after the hungry days of being a start-up were long gone. But with every penny we had going into the business, work-life balance really was no longer a corporate buzz-word or water cooler conversation – it was work-work, period. In my mind (and in reality), if I wasn’t selling, we weren’t making money, and if we weren’t making money, we weren’t eating. And, in the beginning, since it was only us and I was responsible for the sales and marketing, and my husband and his business partner were heading up education and operations, if I didn’t work, we literally didn’t eat. Those were lean days, and they ended up lasting years. The fear of failure, of losing our house, of my husband’s business partner losing his house, of us going belly up, gnawed at me every day and at night kept me far from sleep. But every enrollment, every sale, drove me to want another, and then another, not to mention the insane satisfaction and pride I got knowing I was making my husband’s dream a reality.
Steve Toback, a former senior executive in the technology industry (and, probably no stranger to the work-life balance conversation) wrote a brilliant piece on the work-life balance myth and had this to say about my lament, “We stay connected 24×7 because we want to. Nobody’s holding a gun to your head when you answer a call or a text when you’re supposed to be playing with your kids or out to dinner with your better half. So why do we do it? We love the attention. It makes us feel special. We’re addicted to it. No kidding.” Yeah, Steve, no kidding. But why? Why does working so much make us feel special? When did the latest text or email become the new aphrodisiac? According to Harvard Business Review contributor, Leslie A. Perlow, “Many — if not most — of us are addicted to success. We are successaholics not workaholics. We’re obsessed with work because of the satisfaction we get from the kudos for achievement, not because of some deep-seeded satisfaction from working long hours, as an end in itself. And what this means is that it is the definition of success, not some ingrained personality issue, that is at the source of why we are always on. If this is true, then turning off requires changing what we value in each other, not changing ourselves.” She goes on to share the results of an experiment she conducted where people were applauded for taking time off and shunned for staying plugged in. She concluded that people who appear to be thriving on a non-stop work week are actually thriving on a job well done. I love that story, but what if the judge of the “job well done” is actually the person doing the job? I was beginning to feel like Indiana Jones.
Fast forward eight and a half years, and the business we worked so hard to make successful is just that; yet, my work-is-life mindset vacillates between feast-or-famine and we’re-not-quite-there-yet mentality, choosing to lag behind the business’s obvious success, choosing instead excuses ad nauseam for the countless hours spent on Hootsuite “updating our site” into infinity. Had I trained myself to live in this space of always being “on,” my phone pinging incessantly with emails and text messages? Was my lack of balance excusable in light of the fact that we owned the business and that if it wasn’t successful, our family could lose everything? Or, was I using all of those covers to hide the fact that I am a workaholic and that I’d rather be working than doing pretty much anything else? To make myself feel better, I googled “successful entrepreneurs, work-life balance,” and this is what I found – “If you want to be a successful entrepreneur, there is no such thing as work-life balance.” Thank you, Paul Brown.
So, rather than over think this whole work-life thing, I’m going to a.) go back to my seashore vacation (yes, I’m writing this while on vacation – another sign of a workaholic with zero work-life balance – but, hey, I’m writing it at midnight and everyone’s asleep) and b.) I’m going to follow Steve Toback’s advice, “The next time you hear yourself complaining about how little time you have or your lack of work-life balance, try this instead. Think about your priorities. Think about what you spent your time on that day, that week, that month. Then think about what you didn’t get to do. If there’s a disconnect, do something about it. Simple as that.”