It is difficult to deal with a narcissist when you are a grown, independent, fully functioning adult. The children of narcissists have an especially difficult burden, for they lack the knowledge, power, and resources to deal with their narcissistic parents without becoming their victims. Whether cast into the role of Scapegoat or Golden Child, the Narcissist's Child never truly receives that to which all children are entitled: a parent's unconditional love. Start by reading the 46 memories--it all began there.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Overcoming Denial

Denial is probably the biggest obstacle to healing from the legacy of growing up with a narcissistic parent.

Why? Because you can’t fix something until you can identify what it really is and then come up with a solution that addresses it.

Think about it this way: if you have a door that is difficult to open or close, how do you fix it? You start by examining the door to see where it is sticking. If you find that the door is rubbing on the door frame, then you sand or plane the high area so it no longer sticks. But what happens if you either don’t look for the source or you just won’t see it? You can oil the hinges, change the lock, paint the door…but none of them will fix the door, will they? You can also choose to ignore it and put a kick plate on it so you don’t scuff it any more when you kick it to open it, but that doesn’t fix it, either, does it? You cannot fix the door until you see and acknowledge that a part of the door or the frame has become swollen…only then can you come up with a solution that actually works.

That is exactly how denial works: something is wrong in our lives but, for whatever reason, we refuse to address the real cause of it. We ignore it, we make excuses, we pretend it doesn’t exist, we blame other people, other things, ourselves…but we just won’t address the real source of our problem and, until we do, nothing can really be fixed.

Denial is a form of belief.
If you refuse to believe something that is true, you are in denial. It doesn’t matter how many other people believe the same or if you are the only one…if you refuse to belief something that is true, if you discount or argue against the truth of something, you are in denial.

Belief and reality are not necessarily the same thing. It is a logical fallacy (the “bandwagon fallacy,”  to be exact) to believe that just because a million others believe something, it must be true. You can be the only one who speaks against a false belief and that will make you the only one who is dealing with reality. This is an important concept to remember when the entire FOO closes ranks against you and asserts that you are the crazy one and your poor, heartbroken NM, is only hurting you because she loves you.

This concept, the idea that, because you believe it, it is real, is at the root of a lot of human difficulty, both in the macrocosm of the larger world and the microcosm of the family. Believing something doesn’t make it so…if it did, Santa and the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny would all be tangible realities. Conversely…and equally true…if you refuse to believe something, that doesn’t make it not so. So, you can deny that the earth is ovoid in shape, but that won’t change reality and make it flat.

Why do we engage in denial?
Because, simply put, the truth can hurt. And contemplating a painful truth provokes anxiety, especially if it is a truth we would rather not accept as real. Denial is a much more comfortable state…we feel like we understand and even have some control over our lives when we deny things we don’t fully grasp, things we don’t want to believe, things that satisfy whatever it is that we, personally, need in order to feel at peace. And, the nature of denial being what it is, we don’t really see our denial, we don’t acknowledge that we are quite literally lying to ourselves in order to satisfy an inner need.

So, if denial brings us a feeling of peace, what is wrong with it? Plenty…not the least of which is the fact that you pass it on to others as an acceptable way of living. If you are in a marriage in which your husband neglects you and cheats on you, but your denial prompts you to believe he is a wonderful husband and father, you will pass on to your sons the idea that a wonderful husband and father ignores his wife and cheats on her and you will pass on to your daughters that a wonderful husband will ignore her and cheat on her.

But denial has more subtle effects: somewhere, deep inside you, you know you are in denial. This knowledge can fester and cause you to have an undefined feeling of dissatisfaction because your conscious mind won’t acknowledge what is wrong, even though your subconscious does. If you have ever had an epiphany…one of those “AHA!” moments…and later said to yourself “Why didn’t I see that before?” you were experiencing the success of your subconscious breaking through your denial. You knew but you just refused to consciously acknowledge.

While you are mired in denial, all manner of bad things can go on in your life that you either refuse to acknowledge as bad or you find yourself frustrated and unable to effectively address. You can’t fix something if you can’t figure out what it is that actually needs fixing, and you can spend a lot of time, money, and angst pursuing solutions that never work simply because they don’t address the core issue because you are in denial about it.

So how do you overcome denial?
It’s not easy because you are not fighting some clearly defined enemy outside yourself, you are fighting yourself. Your fight is between your desire to be spared pain and your need to know truth…and if you are in denial, freedom from pain has won.

It involves changing thought processes and being willing to hear, acknowledge, and accept things we would rather not know or deal with. It means growing up and past the idea that hiding from the unpleasant is an acceptable alternative. It means embracing new ideas…and forcing ourselves to give up old ones. Most of all, it means learning how to do serious critical thinking and then make ourselves face the unpleasant realities that critical thinking gives us.

You may have heard that how we talk to ourselves can dictate how we feel about ourselves. That is called “self-talk” and there is a considerable body of literature to support its effectiveness. According to Ben Martin, Psy. D., most self-talk is negative. You can work to overcome negative self-talk by using several conscious methods and, what is most interesting is that not only does this work for overcoming negative self-talk, it is precisely the kind of technique you need to employ to overcome denial.

Dr. Martin’s recommendations for overcoming negative self talk are in blue, below, my comments in black.

1. Reality testing: first, before you can determine whether or not you are in denial about something, you have to do a “reality check.” Ask yourself the following:
  What is my evidence for and against my thinking? Try to take a step back and detach yourself a little: look at evidence as if it were happening to someone else.
  Are my thoughts factual, or are they just my interpretations? This can be a bit difficult, but with a dedication to honesty, you can determine if what you are thinking is true or simply what you want to be true.
  Am I jumping to negative conclusions? You might also be jumping to positive conclusion, too…giving an abuser a free pass because calling him or her on it would upset the balance of your life. Are you telling yourself that something that is truly terrible is “not that bad” so you can avoid confrontation or even the possibility that you might have to cut a person out of your life and go it alone?
  How can I find out if my thoughts are actually true? Depending on your situation, you could ask someone else for their observations, but if you are in a situation with narcissists and their flying monkeys, that’s not going to help you. Do you have a friend or acquaintance who is honest enough to give you the truth? Are you strong enough to willingly accept their observations without holding it against them? Can you Google it and find out an objective truth? Do you have a therapist or counsellor to discuss it with? (I recommend against religious counsellors like pastors because they can lack objectivity…for example, if your mother is being abusive to you, a pastor might simply counsel you to “honour your mother” because that is his religious belief…an objective person might ask you to explain why you believe your mother is being abusive and then help you determine if the behaviour you are having trouble with is, in fact, abusive.)

2. Look for alternative explanations: What are you telling yourself? That this is your fault? That it is wrong to turn your back on your mother because she is…gasp!...your mother?
  Are there any other ways that I could look at this situation? Try to look at things differently. Why do you feel guilty when she is the person behaving badly? Is it never ok to think bad things about your mother and her behaviour? Why? Why should she be exempt from the same standards of behaviour she expects of you…or that the society at large expects?
  What else could this mean? Could it mean that you’ve been wrong all this time? Could it mean that she has been wrong about you? Could it mean that you have allowed her to get away with behaving badly because you thought you had no other choice?
  If I were being positive, how would I perceive this situation? If you were being supportive of yourself, how would you perceive it? If a stranger walked in and observed your mother’s behaviour, how might that stranger perceive it? Why don’t you see it that way?

3. Putting it in perspective: One of the problems with being mired in an unpleasant situation is that we lose perspective. Every little thing can be seen as a big thing…and big things, because they can feel so threatening, can be minimized. Time to try to give things their real weight and don’t forget, even little things, if there are enough of them, can add up to a big one.
  Is this situation as bad as I am making out to be? Or, conversely, am I minimizing a really bad situation so that I can continue to live with it?
  What is the worst thing that could happen? How likely is it? And if that does happen, how bad will it truly be? After years of terrible marriages and relationships, I found and married a really nice guy. Nine years later, he died and I was devastated. I thought it was the worst thing that could ever happen to me…after a lifetime of crap relationships with abusive people, I had this great guy, only for him to die after only nine years of marriage. But, what I could not know at that time was that, while that door closed, another one opened…14 years after his death I am remarried to another truly nice guy and enjoying the highest standard of living I have ever known. Sometimes that which we fear most turns out to be only a stepping stone to even better things.
  What is the best thing that could happen? What have you been denying? If you stopped your denial, what is the best thing that could happen to you? Do you have an abusive spouse…someone who cheats on you, treats you disrespectfully, ignores you except when you get in his face? Do you think the best thing that could happen would be that he started treating you with love and respect? Really? Would you trust that to continue or would you expect him to revert to his old self when the mood took him? Think beyond the confines of your present life…wouldn’t the best thing be for you to be on your own and in a position to find and accept the attentions of a man who respects you and treats you respectfully from the outset? Or perhaps the best thing would be for you to stand up to your abusive husband and tell him you won’t accept his disrespect any more and if he can’t begin treating you respectfully, he’s going to have to find someone else to treat like a doormat. What would work for you?
  What is most likely to happen? What is the most likely outcome if you confront your denial and let it go? And what state of mind would you rather be in—your present one, which is what you get by keeping the denial going—or dealing with the fallout from stopping the denial, like kicking an unfaithful husband to the curb, setting some ground rules with your out-of-control teen, or honestly dealing with your mother’s abuses and setting some boundaries with her? I know, you don’t want to do that, but if that is your only alternative to denial…and you know how much pain that is bringing you…which do you choose?
  Is there anything good about this situation? Is there anything good about living in denial? Is it really allowing you to live peacefully, with no anxiety or physical or emotional health manifestations of suppressed pain and rage? Really?
  Will this matter in five years time? If you don’t stop the denial now, what will it be like in five years? Think back five years…do you have less anxiety, less emotional pain, are you less troubled than you were back then? So, what are the chances that it won’t get worse over the next five?

4. Using goal-directed thinking: I think it is important for you to be very clear on what you want: writing it down helps clarify your thinking. Do you want to stop living in denial and, whether it hurts or not, deal with reality head on? Do you want to step out of your comfort zone and actually put your head in charge of your life instead of your feelings?
  Is thinking this way helping me to feel good or to achieve my goals? Has denial helped you to feel good? Has it helped you to achieve your goals? What brings you to the place of wanting to end your denial at this time?
  What can I do that will help me solve the problem? Denial is a kind of thought disorder: you convince yourself of something that is not true, and then you fight to stay convinced. It is very similar to negative self-talk in which, instead of saying “Oops! Knocked over the glass! Gotta find a towel and clean it up!” you say “You stupid, clumsy, good-for-nothing bitch! You can’t do anything right!” to yourself. In denial you say “Oh, it wasn’t that bad…last time he actually broke my jaw, so these two black eyes aren’t that bad,” instead of saying to yourself “That was abuse and I am not going to put up with it ever again. Out you go and don’t come back.”

  In denial you talk yourself into believing something that isn’t true because acknowledging the truth puts you at some kind of risk. So, what is the risk? That you will be alone? Isn’t that better than a man who beats you. Does your denial say “He didn’t mean it”? Well, it is lying to you because at some point he gave himself permission to hit you. The same thing goes for emotional abuse, regardless of the source…your husband, your mother, your own kids…at some point they decided what they wanted was more important than respecting you and your feelings and your boundaries. How could they not mean it?
  The way you stop denial is simply make yourself stop. When you hear yourself saying “Oh, it wasn’t that bad…” or “She didn’t mean it,” or “She can’t help it,” stop yourself. Stop yourself mid-sentence or mid-thought and say, aloud if necessary, “Yes, it was that bad!” or “He knew it would hurt me if he cheated and he did it anyway!” or “She knows that not inviting me to Thanksgiving dinner hurt me and she didn’t care!” Stop the denial, stop the avoidance, make yourself acknowledge reality in all its ugly glory.
  Is there something I can learn from this situation, to help me do it better next time? What can you learn from denial? You can learn to hide from the truth, you can learn to be a doormat, you can learn to put your feelings on hold, to pretend, to put up a good front. But you can’t learn truth or how to be resilient or how to deal with adversity from it.

Some years ago Pam Tillis put out a song, “Queen of Denial” and some of the lyrics just might strike a chord in some of us:

Well I said, he had a lot of potential/He was only misunderstood
You know, he didn’t really mean to treat me so bad/He wanted to be good
And I swore one day I would tame him/Even though he loved to run hog wild

I knew he didn’t have any money/Yeah that’s why he couldn’t buy me a ring
and just because he bought himself a brand new pick-up truck/Really didn’t prove anything
And he never had to say he loved me/I could see it every time he smiled
Just call me Cleopatra everybody/Cause I’m the queen of denial
Oh queen of denial/Buyin’ all his alibis
Queen of denial/Floatin’ down a river of lies, yeah

Well I’m not gonna jump to conclusions/Or throw away this perfect romance
Even though I saw him dancin’ last night/With a girl in a leopard skin pants
Yeah, he’s probably stuck in traffic/And he’ll be here in a little while
Just call me Cleopatra everybody/Cause I’m the queen of denial

Reality isn’t always pretty, and too often it is not what we want. But if we don’t recognize it, acknowledge it, and deal with it, we can’t really live our lives authentically. Somewhere inside of us there is always this little kernel of awareness that keeps nagging at us, provoking anxiety, making us uncomfortable, at the lies we tell ourselves and even base our lives on.

For some of us, denial provokes enormous conflicts and pain, disrupting our lives and even setting us up for disaster. Denial allows us to remain in abusive situations when facing reality would make us take protective action. Denial may seem like a safe, protective, peaceful place to live, but it’s not real and refusal to deal with reality can have a devastating effect on our lives. I knew a woman, many years ago, whose mother was completely in denial about her being molested by her stepfather. Even when the girl got pregnant at the age of 12 and had to have an abortion, the mother continued to live in denial. Acknowledgement would mean she would have to accept that the man she married was a paedophile, it would mean she would be shamed publicly for allowing this to go on under her roof, it would mean she would become an unmarried woman again, it would mean she would lose both the prestige of being married and the income he supplied to the household. When she weighed the cost of giving up her denial against saving her preteen daughter from being raped several times a week by her own husband, she chose denial. When I met the woman she was in her early 30s, morbidly obese, and so paralyzed by depression it was only the paralysis that kept her from committing suicide. Denial can hurt you, it can hurt the people you love, it can set you up for disaster.

It’s not easy to get rid of denial. First you have to have at least a clue as to what you are in denial about. Then you have to ask yourself the hard questions and force yourself to supply honest answers. Once you have those answers, now you have to decide if you are going to change things or allow the status to remain quo. Overcoming denial can be the beginning of a major change in your life. Will today be the day you stop feeling helpless about your situation, confront denial, and take control of your life?


  1. I find the hardest part of denial so far was figuring out I was in denial. I have so little trust in my thoughts, opinions and beliefs. Unraveling the layers of what I was told by my NM vs. what I know to be real is a struggle because of denial. My strengthen to stay sane thru the years has also built a very strong wall of denial. Its a war in my mind. My NM is still very much in my life so I'm sort of two steps forward one step back...but I'm creeping forward!

    1. I could have written this response myself, the only difference being that my Father is the narcissist in my life. You aren't alone, and I think me stumbling on this post may be one of the first real productive steps in overcoming this.

  2. My elderly mother is in deep denial about my sister's sociopathic manipulation and control. Motivated by her anticipated financial windfall, my sister does everything in her power to smear me to the family, as I am the only one that truly sees what's underneath her mask (an evil, conning, lying parasite) and what her underlying agenda is (getting more than her 1/4 share of my mom's estate). Without my mother's denial, my sister would have no power, but they operate as a team against anyone that questions anything they do. I am beginning to see that my mother runs her family like a high school clique, smearing those they want to ostracize and shun. My sister recently lied in front of all the family about me, blaming me for something I know she did, and my brother called and told me about it. When I talked to my mom about it later, all she cared about was finding out who the "leak" was!! I couldn't believe her callous disregard for my feelings at having been smeared by my sister's false accusations and lies. This article helped me a great deal by making me see that my mother is at the root of my problem - as long as she prefers to deny any wrongdoing my sister does rather than admit it, nothing will ever be resolved. She enables her all the way. I, my husband and kids cut my sister out of our lives 5 years ago, but I am thinking we need to give dear old mom (grandma) the boot as well. What do you all think would be better...just drift away quietly or have a confrontation about the denial and enabling my mother does with my sister that is at the root of the problem? I have just about given up on trying to make my mother understand the damage she and my sister have done to our family. It's like talking to a cat. She is 85 years old so I have to cut her a little slack in the cognitive department, but this is really getting to me. My daughter has nicknamed my sister (her aunt that she despises) "The Tick" ...a small ugly little parasite that latches onto and feeds off of any host she can find. My sister has put a big wedge between my mother and me, my husband and kids. Luckily we live in a different state so only have to deal with my FOO on occasion. I'm hoping it will all get better once my mom least then I will never have to see my sister again or even hear her name mentioned.

  3. If you believe you are right about something, what is the likelihood you will change your mind? And how would you react if somebody sent you a letter or cornered you into a confrontation for the sole purpose of haranguing you about how you are wrong and how they plan to punish you for being wrong by cutting all contact with you? Would you feel enlightened and understanding and agree that you were wrong? Or would you feel defensive and get angry at the people who had the audacity to treat you in such a way?

    Narcissists do not take confrontation well: they get defensive because no matter what they do, they have found ways to rationalize and justify their behaviour so they are, in their own eyes, never wrong. If you were to provoke a confrontation like you suggest, the best outcome would be that your narcissist becomes defensive and even more entrenched...the worst outcome is that your narcissist goes on the attack, makes it all about you aren't perfect, how you have hurt her, how you are at fault (she deflects your "attack" onto you), and in the absolute worst scenario, she then embarks upon a campaign of revenge.

    How you handle your own narcissists is entirely up to know them better than anyone and may be able to predict how they will react (your sister sounds like the attack and revenge type) and only you know how much you can take from them. My own preferred method is to simply fade away and, on the rare occasion that someone says "hey...wonder what's up with Violet" and makes contact, I am always unavailable. If you give them no source of drama, they eventually quit comng around because there is nothing in it for them.

    Your life, your choice, but think it through before you take action because a narcissist will NOT take a confrontation quietly and meekly, nor will she change.



  4. I am in denial....and reading this I understood...lightbulb moment! And it was all so good to read until I read...will this all matter in 5 years time....oh no! That's one of the favourite phrases in the book.....why are you making an issue out of it....what's the big deal...oh for goodness sake does it matter...its hardly worth moaning about... cant you just forget about it...what will it matter in 5 years time! I wanted to cry at this point...but I read on and really deep down I know the incident won't matter but the consequences of it might.....and they run a lot deeper. Then I wondered whose denial it was that has been breaking my heart for years.

  5. Thank you for posting this. I am finding it almost exactly 2 years later, but the truth is the truth, even over time. I have been living in denial of a variety of things my whole life - it has been the only thing that kept me sane very often. But the reality is that is has caused me to become paralyzed in so many ways that my walls of denial are threatening to fall in and collapse on me. I must find a way to circumvent this knee-jerk response, this coping mechanism that I don't even realize I am using until after the fact. I think this post may be a good foothold for me to begin my climb to freedom.


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