If you’ve ever used the phrase, or been accused of “living in denial,” you know that those three words tend to have a particularly negative connotation. Within the field of mental health and psychological counseling, the concept of denial is a tactic the mind uses to detach from painful external or internal circumstances by refusing to accept reality.
It’s widely believed that this avoidance approach to life is most often used when individuals lack the necessary coping skills to face situations that might produce trauma, conflict or anxiety.
Denial is frequently associated with the death of a loved one, when the survivor refuses to accept the finality of their loss as well as the corresponding shock and pain. Other times, denial may accompany a chronic or acute health diagnosis that the patient rejects to avoid the possible pain of treatment and uncertain outcome.
Additionally, the denial defense mechanism is virtually a cliché when it’s used to describe alcoholics, smokers, substance abusers, gamblers or other addictive practitioners who tell themselves they can quit their destructive behavior of choice “anytime” they want.
Furthermore, examples of group denial include those who claim that the Holocaust never occurred, astronauts never landed on the moon or that schoolchildren hiding under their desks during “Cold War” bombing drills could survive a nuclear attack.
In almost all areas of life, “living in denial” is associated with a weakness and is generally considered a bad thing—except for one area, and that’s when someone chooses to live in denial of themselves.
One of the most powerful statements attributed to Jesus can be found in the New Testament book of Matthew, chapter 16, verse 24: Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”
The Greek word for “deny” (aparneomai) in this passage is multi-faceted and calls the individual to “…disregard, lose sight of, forget own interests…” and is almost the complete opposite of the traditional psychiatric concept of “living in denial.”
That’s because if someone wants to live in the type of denial used in the book of Matthew, it will require them to admit that the “self” is actually at the core of most of their problems and that the “self” needs to be denied rather than protected.
By that I mean the needs and wants of others should ascend above our own selfish desires. Both the Old and New Testaments assert that considering the needs of others helps provide meaning, purpose and contentment in life. Consider the difference in your home life or workplace if each member of your respective group pursued the needs of others first. While hypothetical, the assumed difference would be markedly noticeable compared to the current situation.
One of the greatest lessons about denial that I ever learned came during a secular course on ethics while pursuing my MBA degree. In that class—after weeks of floating between slippery definitions of right and wrong, situational ethics and verbal sparrings around black-and-white conduct within the confines of murky grey areas—a guiding question emerged:
“Would I want to live in a world where everyone made this same decision or acted the same way that I’m about to?”
The application of this question to virtually any decision you make on a daily basis can help you take up your metaphorical cross that Jesus referenced, ensuring that you deny self while considering the needs of others before your own.
In fact, choosing to live in denial of self might be one of the healthiest ways to live from either a mental, physical or spiritual perspective.
However, living a life of faith and denial is not without its critics and skeptics who view religion as “an opiate for the masses” or a crutch for the weak minded.
The truth is that we will all endure loss, trouble, anxiety, conflict and challenges in this life. As a result of those losses, all of us will be hurt at some time in our lives. Many will unconsciously “live in denial” toward their maiming attributes inflicted by life, while others will consciously choose to live in denial of self and lean on the crutch of faith to help heal from the life experiences that have lamed them.
But the truth is that the only thing worse than being lame with a crutch, is being lame without one.