Shame breeds denial in both victims and liars. It’s a major cause of unreported abuse – why victims don’t disclose, minimize, and deny it and why addicts don’t seek help. We might ignore our mounting debt to avoid the same of admitting it and having to lower our spending or standard of living.
A parent might look the other way to avoid accepting responsibility when his child is bullying peers or getting high. Facing the truth can expose us to pain, possible loss, and shame about our own behavior or shortcomings.
When we are trained to deny
Unbelievably, as children we’re often trained to deny our perceptions.
Parents routinely contradict children’s perceptions to manipulate them, to protect another family member, or to hide family secrets, such as addiction; e.g. “Daddy (who’s passed out) wants to play with you; he’s just tired,” or “That movie isn’t playing anymore (even though it clearly is),” or “Your brother didn’t mean to hit you.”
Parents also deny children’s needs and feelings, telling them they don’t or shouldn’t feel a certain way or need or want something.
Children idealize their parents and must adapt to survive. They blame themselves and learn to doubt or deny perceptions, feelings, wants, and needs. This can lead to toxic shame that unconsciously colors their entire adult lives. Some people repress or deny their past and insist they had a happy childhood to avoid painful truths.
We also deny problems that grew up around. We won’t realize that something is wrong. If we were emotionally abused as a child, we might not recognize abuse or object to mistreatment.
We’d likely take the blame, or minimize, excuse, or rationalize it, e.g. “It’s my fault,” “It’s enough that she loves me,” “My husband doesn’t mean it,” or “My wife just has a temper.” If we were molested, we might not notice or protect our child who’s being incested.
If we grew up with alcoholism, we might normalize our spouse’s or our own alcohol addiction. Denial affects future generations and can cause families and entire groups to endure decades of shame that’s hard to reverse. When we face the truth, we can seek help and interrupt that legacy.
How we’re harmed
When we deny negative feelings and memories, it deadens our senses. All our feelings get suppressed, including joy and love.
We become increasingly numb as our heart closes. Similarly, when we deny our wants and needs, our enjoyment of life diminishes. We sacrifice our desires and live in quiet desperation. Denial of our value prevents us from receiving love and achieving our goals or gaining any satisfaction from our successes.
Moreover, when we repeatedly tune out reality, problems grow. Sweeping something important under the rug makes it harder to correct later. Many people afraid of cancer delay getting biopsies, even though early intervention leads to better outcomes. The same is true for treating mental health and marital problems.
Our psyche knows the truth, and our discomfort might manifest as passive-aggressive or addictive behaviour, displaced anger (yelling at our children instead of our spouse), or as a physical or mental health problem. Research shows that denial of stress and negative emotions have serious health risks that can lead to heart attacks, surgery, and death.
When a society denies racism, corruption, immorality, or abuse of power, institutions are at risk. Like individuals, societies sicken. People become numb, develop a sense of futility, and a downward spiral ensues that allows the worst in human nature.
How to change
Change requires courage and a desire to live in truth. We often need support, especially when the fear of facing something or someone is great.