Remember those old Road Runner cartoons where Wile E. Coyote would accidentally run off a cliff? And he’d spend a few seconds suspended in mid-air, tentatively dabbing the nothingness beneath with his toe, as if to reassure himself that the ground was still below him?
As viewers, we all know that the second Wile looks down and confirms the reality of his situation, he’s going to plummet to his doom.
Human beings do the same thing all the time. We get ourselves into harrowing situations, we surround ourselves in stress and anxious emotions, but we find ways to delay in the inevitable — we force ourselves to NOT look down — so we can spend a few more seconds walking on air before the universe reminds us that gravity does, in fact, exist.
THAT is the power of denial.
And denial’s unique ability to help people stop themselves from falling into an abyss might actually be a good thing, according to Dr. Holly Parker in her new book, When Reality Bites: How Denial Helps and What to Do When It Hurts.
That’s right. Despite what you’ve heard, denial is not all bad.
When you think about it, denial is a huge part of the human experience. In fact, it might just be the most human part of our experience, because it’s something that only people do. You won’t ever see a dog pretending it’s not hungry when there’s a steak in front of it, or a cat acting like it doesn’t want to come inside when it’s raining. Denying what’s really going on around us seems to be something that’s singular to human beings.
People can get creative in their attempts to pretend that the truth that’s right in front of them isn’t true — and some people are really, really good at it. You could even say that a few people are experts on the art of “evading the unwanted.”
Here’s how denial can actually make us healthier and happier…
In her book, Parker talks about everyday experiences with denial that we’re all familiar with. Ignoring the bills piling up until they’re late? Yep. Feeling sad but never making an attempt to change anything? Check! Denying that you’re not feeling well until your body throws in the towel? We’ve all been there.
According to When Reality Bites, denial allows us to “dial” our awareness up or down to where we need to be emotionally in those everyday moments.
This presents humans with a unique opportunity — the option to take a step back mentally and deal with the issue later on in our own time, because there are times in life where we simply “can’t even.” And there are times when we need to deal with anxiety on our own terms.
Denial is a key factor in our ability to take on the world around us — it’s like an emotional filter — and it’s actually pretty cool, because denial can protect us from what we can’t handle in the moment.
For example, we’ve all seen movies where the main character is taken from their ordinary world and finds themselves thrust into Oz, Narnia, or some other fantastic landscape. Often, the first reaction of these characters is to deny their new reality. “Ah, this has to be a dream.”
Denial allows them to stave off the panic of dealing with witches, dragons, and talking animals long enough to let them slowly acclimate to their new surroundings without flooding their brains with anxiety and horror.
It might be frustrating for the viewers at home, because WE know that’s a real witch, but, for the person dealing with the adversity, having that buffer zone of denial allows them to navigate their scary new reality rather than just shutting down completely.
In When Reality Bites, Parker explains that this behavior is normal and that human beings use denial as a tool to deal with both bad and good things.
We’ve already discussed the bad — denial keeps us from realizing that we’ve fallen off a cliff, that bills are due, or that we’re not in Kansas anymore. But denial can also make good things feel even better.
Delayed gratification is a form of denial. That’s when human beings avoid learning the truth about something — what it looks like, how it feels — to delay its pleasure from eventually ending.
We separate soon-to-be spouses on their wedding day, so they won’t see each other until they walk down the aisle. We refuse to hear spoilers about that show we’re dying to watch. We wait to learn the gender of a baby until they’re born to make their birth even more dramatic.
Denial can not only protect us from painful truths until we’re ready to deal with them, but it can also make good things last longer.
Denial can, in good times and bad, make us feel like possibilities are endless. That the world is a little more magical than it might really be or that we have more doors open to us than we’d ever imagined.
And, whether that’s true or not, denial can provide us with the emotional support we need to prevent ourselves from lapsing into despair and get us back on our feet, searching for new ways to move forward — even if there actually isn’t a cliff below us anymore.
I started reading When Reality Bites completely skeptical that denial could be a healthy emotion, but I’m a total convert now. Sometimes we all need to ignore what reality is telling us and forge ahead on our own paths, for better or worse. If you’re not sure about the redemptive power of denial, pick up a copy of When Reality Bites and see for yourself.