Crisis? What crisis?
Protecting ourselves from reality
The words 'Crisis? What crisis?' were attributed to Prime Minister Jim Callaghan in 1979. He’d just returned from a Caribbean summit meeting to a Britain that was in chaos due to widespread strikes by public sector unions. Actually Callaghan never said ‘Crisis? What crisis?’ but The Sun decided that his performance at a press conference had conveyed that message.
If so, it was an example of denial. Denial is a defence mechanism (sometimes conscious but often unconscious) to protect us from a painful reality and the difficult feelings that go with it – for example, anxiety or grief. Denial can also work as a protection for our self-esteem.
When we hear of the death of someone we know our first reaction is usually ‘Oh no!’ And the processes of dying or bereavement will also trigger denial, the natural reaction to news that seems utterly impossible and alien. Denial is a stage that has to be gone through and which repeats until we are able to accept what’s happening or has happened.
A way of life
For some people denial is almost a way of life. I once knew a woman who presented a permanently sunny exterior. She was always the life and soul of the party. I had heard that many years before, however, she had had a terrible time in a particular job. She had fallen victim to a vicious clique of individuals at work who had fought to a standstill every creative project she had tried to launch to the point where they had got her splashed across the media and her hair had turned white with the strain. When I gently asked her about it decades later, she flatly denied it had been a difficult experience. ‘Nah! It was a wonderful time. Marvellous people’, was her response.
Most people use denial to some degree in order to get them through life. There are times when it can even save lives. A friend’s mild-mannered father found himself and his platoon in mortal danger in World War Two when a German tank suddenly approached their position. Wiping out of his mind the danger he was in, the man attacked the tank single-handed with a revolver, dodged its machine gun and dropped a grenade through its hatch, knocking it out.
Not so useful denial
But denial can also be a real problem. A woman’s husband got her arrested for a crime that he had committed. She completely failed to appreciate the gravity of what he’d done, referring to him simply as ‘not very responsible sometimes’. And many of us have heard of instances where a parent has refused to believe their child when he or she has told them about abuse they were suffering at the hands of the parent’s partner.
Alternatively the grown-up child of parents who, for instance, inflicted severe emotional neglect on the person when they were small may now talk about those parents as if they had been the best in the world. Or else it may be a case of a family where parents kept all negative emotions hidden from their children’s view, presenting a perfect exterior to them and to everyone else. The children may nevertheless have grown up with a nagging sense that all was not well in the state of Denmark and may also now struggle as adults to deal with unpleasantness in themselves and others.
A way out
In situations such as these, psychotherapy can sometimes be of help. People may be enabled to adjust to reality as it actually was or is. Buried pain can be exorcised, a sense of self can be strengthened and a happier and healthier life can be embarked upon that avoids some of the pitfalls and traps to which a person was previously blind.
© Brian Shand 2019
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