By Dr. Caroline Cederquist and AnneElena Foster –
A friend showed up late for lunch one day complaining that the dry cleaner had shrunk a favorite skirt and she’d been unable to get the zipper closed. She explained her exasperation with the cleaners as she popped mouthfuls of heavily buttered bread into her mouth, never considering that it might be buttered bread and not laundry error behind her wardrobe malfunction.
Whether it’s health and weight management or some other sensitive issue, many people deny truths that are too painful for them to face in the moment. Denial is a mental defense mechanism, and sometimes it’s quite useful.
Soldiers in the heat of combat can switch into a denial mode to about the deaths of comrades, because to stop and acknowledge and contend with those losses could put their own lives in jeopardy. That’s an extreme example, but it makes the case.
Most of us never face such a dramatic need, but the powerful denial mechanism comes into play for other, less life-threatening problems. Denial defends our egos, and our sometimes fragile self-image, from problems we have not yet mustered the courage to tackle. Sometimes we just can’t admit what may be obvious to others. It is as if our minds tell us, “What problem? I don’t have a problem.”
As long as we’re in denial, there IS no problem. And if no problems exists, we need not seek solutions.
Until you understand what a powerful force denial can be, you’re likely to find yourself doomed to play the no-win diet game. You may see some progress in your weight-loss efforts, but if you have not fully accepted that you have a problem and what’s causing it, you will not make the long-term changes necessary for continued success and healthy living.
Most of us have developed a variety of ways to protect ourselves from painful truths. So when we decide to make significant changes in the way we think and act, we must also become aware of the hidden mental patterns that block our progress and keep us mired in those unproductive patterns and behaviors. But it’s virtually impossible to overcome unproductive behaviors if we don’t first admit that we have them!
If you’ve read through this thinking, “I’m not in denial about my weight gain,” take a look again. That in itself could be your denial mechanism in action. Consider the following questions:
- Do you ever avoid weighing yourself because you would rather not know that number? The what-I-don’t know-
- won’t-hurt-me approach doesn’t really avoid pain; it merely delays it.
- Have you ever blamed your clothes dryer for tight-fitting clothing? Chances are, if everyone in the family isn’t having the same problem, it’s not the dryer.
- Do you avoid mirrors, especially when getting out of the shower?
- Do you ever eat junk food when you’re alone, especially at home or in the car, and then make a point to throw away the candy, cookie or chip wrappers before anyone else sees them?
- Do you ever exaggerate how long, how often or how hard you exercise?
- Do you ever under-represent the amount of food you’ve eaten, either in volume or calorie counts?
- Do you ever blame bloat and excess weight on “water retention?”
We sometimes ignore or deny the early signs of weight gain, and the denial at play in our subconscious mind exerts influence over our feeling and thinking and our conscious choices, enabling us to continue unhealthy behaviors.
But the reverse is also true. We can make a conscious decision to change our behavior and disarm our denial, so that we can change how we feel and make different choices for our behaviors.
Consider this example: You come home from a hard day at work and you’re feeling tired and weary. You need a pick-me-up before you launch into the evening’s tasks, making dinner and other chores around the house, so you have a sandwich, even though you had an afternoon snack earlier. You’re just having a little lift, that’s all.
While fixing dinner, you have a bite of this and a sample of that. By the time it’s actually time to sit down to eat, you’re not really hungry, but it’s dinner time, so you eat.
You later decide that you shouldn’t have dessert, but you go to the freezer half a dozen times during commercials with a spoon to scoop out one bite of ice cream.
You wouldn’t be unusual at all if you were counting up your calories at the end of the day and you just didn’t count the sandwich or the nibbling during dinner prep or the bowl-less ice cream. That’s denial.
If you counted those calories, you’d have to recognize that you took in more than you planned or needed. And you’d either have to accept that you’ve made bad choices –and then change them—or admit that you’ve chosen not to change. You can see why denial is appealing.
But given that same scenario, if you make the choice to go for a brisk walk to perk yourself up, instead of eating something, you’ll get that pick-me-up you wanted, and more!
You’ll feel proud of having made a good and healthy choice, and more energized to tackle the rest of your chores. When it’s time for dinner, you’ll be more aware of other choices you’re making related to eating. You may specifically avoid snacking while you’re preparing the meal, and during the meal, you may be more mindful of your portions.
And when it’s time for dessert, you may decide you’ve got the right momentum, and skip the extra treat, or you may honestly appraise your intake and determine that you’ve left room for that reward!
The trick with beating the denial pattern is that you’ve got to keep beating it. You may have to assess your thinking and behaviors often until your healthy choices and positive thinking become automatic enough that your brain no longer needs denial to feel better.
Thick & Thin
Denial is a mental mechanism that tells you there’s no problem. It’s a critical survival tools sometimes, but other times, it leads to slow deterioration of what we most value, our health, our self-image, our self-respect. Identifying denial is the
first step to beating it.