Sexual Abuse and Denial

What is Denial?

Denial has been described as many things in many ways by many people and still I find the Webster's Dictionary definintion of denial to be most basically meaningful and accurate. Webster's dictionary defines denial as:

"an assertion that an allegation is false...disbelief in the existence or reality of a thing ... self denial... [and] the reduction of anxiety by the unconscious exclusion from the mind of intolerable thoughts, feelings, or facts."

Why Deny?

Denial is a tool that often enables a person to survive situations and abuses that they would otherwise not be able to in any conscious way tolerate. People deny to survive. People deny in order to attempt to avoid real or imagined losses in their lives. An example of this would be a child who is sexually abused by an otherwise needed, relied upon, and revered parent. The child cannot face or tolerate or even contemplate not being with that parent so the 'reality' of the abuse is denied. What is real, is then held consciously or subconsciously as unreal and all that has occurred that is real is held as unreal. This has the potential to totally invert a child's thought process so that what is logical then becomes viewed as illogical and what is illogical is considered and believed to be logical and all within the realm and reality of illusion, delusion, repression of memories and denial.

Individuals, and especially youngsters who are sexually abused must deny to get by. This, over time becomes a way of life, a pattern like so many other aspects of one's life.

The Positive Side of Denial

Denial functions as a buffer after unexpected shocking news, or an unexpected or traumatic experience which we may or may not be able to hold in our consciousness; it then allows an individual to collect himself/herself and, with time, mobilize other, less radical defenses. Yes, denial is a defense mechanism and as such it is a very capable tool. Denial allows us to be where we need to be until we are ready...until it is time for us to face what it is that we had to previously push away, whether we had any knowledge of pushing anything away in the first place.

Denial can be a costly defense mechanism emotionally, physically and in many other ways as well. But denial gives us time to muster the needed strength with which we can then cope with things ... realities... truths, that we were not previously able to deal with, or talk about.

What is the Difference Between Negative Denial and Positive Denial?

Denial by its very nature as often been viewed as something that is negative or negative (bad) only. In fact there are positive aspects or benefits associated with denial also.

First the negative aspects of denial. In my opinion, the negative aspects of denial center around the way in which a person in denial remains stuck in the problems and or situation that they are in fact denying. Negatively speaking, denial also can prolong our pain, it can keep us from the introspective and often intuitive reality that we need to embrace in order to change what is not working for us in our lives.

Denial costs us time and often threatens and or undermines not only our own sense of identity but also our sense of self-trust, worth and esteem. Denial is often inter-woven with a pattern of illogical-thinking which must be maintained in order that we facilitate the condition of our very denial.

To the positive aspects of denial: Denial protects us from things that would be too annihilating for us to handle emotionally or things that we are not prepared to deal with or cope with in terms of other realities in our lives. Some protection in these areas from certain traumas in life is a good thing to a point. Everyone reaches that point at there own crossroads upon the journey to heal should one choose the journey to heal. Positive denial helps us set aside for briefer amounts of time that which we find difficult to face, while at the same time it allows us to peek into reality in such a way as to begin to make the necessary changes in our lives.

Positive denial tends to lead us through our own processes of exploration of self and psyche just enough to leave us with the questions as to what is illusion and what is reality.

Illusions can often times be the precursors of reality. Through illusions and imagination we begin to slowly challenge what otherwise has been our reality--denied, and held away from true self.

Take a few moments now and reflect on how you can use positive denial to view your new reality or changing reality as a friendly and safe place. In fact, take positive denial one step further and ask yourself what might be in store for you as you learn to live as fully as you possibly can in this new world, in this new reality that is new to you now only in the sense that it was dissociated from your awareness previously, to one extent or another.

However, you may well come up with many more ideas because you have positive denial working for you and have gained some distance from your tragedy, and or the realization and recovery in memory of your tragedy or trauma.

  • How do you see yourself growing personally from this trauma?
  • What are the mental benefits?
  • What are the physical advantages?
  • Emotionally, how will you grow?
  • Spiritually, how are you enhanced?
  • Has your sense of purpose been expanded?
  • Can you contribute more?
  • Can you achieve better results?
  • How are your goals improved?
  • How do you sense that your partnerships will be strengthened?
  • Your intimacies?
  • Your friendships?
  • Your collegial relationships?
  • Your affiliations and networks?

Jot down whatever thoughts come to mind. You may wish to record these in an Empowerment Journal. Give yourself plenty of space to write. Accept whatever occurs to you as often as you find yourself coming up with positive illusions. Don't be concerned if you only have a few ideas during this period. Remember, you may well be still trying to recover from the shock of your previously repressed memories and traumas as they just now or have recently surfaced. Some people only gradually see the positive illusions of their new reality.

Denial and Illusions Help Us Take Risks

People often use the strategy of positive denial and illusions cope with high-risk, but welcome, life change. Think about how positive denial can benefit you in the traumatic but desirable upheaval of marriage, a promotion, turning twenty-one, movie to a new city? As well as in the beginning stages of recovering memories of childhood sexual abuse. In those moments of change, it it is exceptionally easy to create the illusion of the gains that are present; your mechanism of positive denial operates to block out the strenuous demands that accompany any one of those events.

When you think about it, there is little doubt that positive denial helps us take risks. How many times have you heard someone say, "If I had known how much stress and effort this particular life change would bring [in parenting, career ad- vancement, relocation, healing etc, I would probably never have done it." So it is common that during dramatic but positive life change we agree to take the risk of growing and accomplishing our goals; we do it in part because we don't realize what the extent of the demands on us will be. This is another example of how fooling yourself can be an advantage.

Never Deny Symptoms

Positive denial is a valuable coping tool, but never use it to block life-threatening symptoms. Symptoms such as breathing difficulties, severe depression, and cardiovascular irregularities need recoginition and attention. Guard against denying acute distress signals that indicate you need to take some well-earned time out. They are red flags signaling you to get the help you need to heal and return to a productive, fulfilling life. Rarely are our acute distress symptoms indications of personal weakeness. Rather they are the result of profound trauma. So be sure to slow down and get the professional help you need.

Not denying symptoms is considered to be good self-care and that can be very difficult for survivors not only in the beginning stages of recovering memories and going to therapy but for a much longer period of time. It takes, in some cases, a long time to unravel the effects of all of the damage that was sustained by survivors when they were the innocent little children, who were the victims of the outrageous choices and acts of others.

If you have been struggling with denial, know that you are certainly not alone and that this is a very universal experience in the nature of what is a very distinct truism in the survival of such traumatic abuse and violation.

The main thing is to work at understanding your denial, identifying the root causes and sources of your denial, in other words, determining why you feel it so necessary to be in denial or to use denial as a coping mechanism, survival tool, and way of staying safe. There is little to be gained on a long term basis though by denying one's denial. This can often lead to pent up anger and rage and all of the incumbent problems that stem from problems so associated.

© Ms. A.J. Mahari, December 27, 1996

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