Denial: survival strategy or the ultimate way to stay stuck?

The recent climate strike by children, and the growing movement of young people throughout the world who are determined to take action seems more than a breath of fresh air. It’s a relief. At last, it feels like someone is taking notice of the state of the world and the really urgent need for us all to start living very differently.

Climate change is massively challenging. It’s really scary when you look into its implications and what is happening already. It is easy to feel powerless when faced by the sheer volume of things that need to change, and great sadness as we see iconic animals and birds dying out, and, less publicly, people losing their livelihoods through great swathes of the Sahel.

We have all known about climate change for years. Until about 10 years ago, I regarded myself as a climate change activist. I learned how to give talks on the subject; we stopped flying, we insulated our house, installed PV cells, bought decent bikes, and turned the heating down. But nothing happened. No one else stopped flying or running the heating at full blast. The third runway at Heathrow was still on the table, and fracking has become a reality in the UK.

It became easier to slide into a state of “maybe it will be alright”, or “the government will find a solution” and “what’s the point if China doesn’t change what they do?”. With these more comforting thoughts, we turned the electricity back on and went away on cheap flights like everyone else seems to do. We entered the warm cotton wool of denial; the creation of a world that we feel comfortable in, and the closing down of the world as it actually is.

I have come to realise that I draw on denial a great deal as a strategy for coping with the world. I think we all do, and to some extent, this is quite an effective strategy, and possibly a necessary one in these days of data overload. Sometimes, if we ignore things we don't like, they can go away of their own accord. A level of denial is probably a key element of resilience and maintaining a positive outlook. This is particularly relevant in working with refugees, as many keep themselves going by an absolutely resolute focus on the positive, however little they may have to be positive about. It’s a survival strategy that works.

However, working with refugees also challenges the therapist to accept that there are aspects of the world today that they have been in denial about, to maintain their own comfortable world. I really don't want to think about evil and overwhelming cruelty, the racism they experience in this country, and the spread of chaos, where no one is safe. This unsettles me a great deal. Denial would protect me from facing this reality, but it also keeps me at a distance from clients’ experience. Working through my need for denial, and making some sense of how people can act in the way that they do, making some sense of evil and chaos and the abuse of power, gives me ground to stand on. Taking a stand on this ground gives me and other therapists a place from which to accompany their journey to recovery and growth.

The children are taking a stand - they are seeing the world how it truly is and calling us out, the generation in power, to open our eyes, and use the power that we have, or that we could have if we are prepared to admit to it.

Denial keeps us stuck. It is comforting and much easier to live with, but ultimately we can only move forward if we can break through it, and address the credit card debt, the broken relationship, an imminent death, the failing business. We can imagine this as a journey.

Steps of the journey

1. I don't think there is a problem at all – I don't know what you are talking about...
2. Yes, there is a problem, but there is nothing I can do about it right now/I don't want to talk about it (end of)
3. Yes I do have a problem, but I have no idea how to tackle it (so I’ll leave it for now...)
4. Yes I do have a problem, and I am prepared to ask for help, but...
5. Yes, I have a problem, I need help to tackle it, and I can see that life would be a lot better for me if I can sort it.
6. I never realised that there was a way through this! I feel a bit strange and exposed, and sad, but at least I feel like I’m back in control. I’m heading towards where I want to be.

Tackling denial means meeting those difficult feelings of shame, powerlessness, overwhelm, sadness and fear. As with the alcoholic’s prayer, it means accepting the things we cannot change, having the courage to change the things that we can, and having the wisdom to know the difference. It isn’t easy. Talking to someone who understands this journey can really help.

I don't know how we get our MPs to really take on board climate change (yes, I have written to mine, regularly!), but the children are getting the conversation going again, throughout the world. They are providing another voice to add to the scientists, and in that, if we also join in and get real, there is hope.

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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Ilkley, West Yorkshire, LS29

Written by Kate Graham

Ilkley, West Yorkshire, LS29

Kate Graham is UKCP accredited Integrative Psychotherapist working in Ilkley West Yorkshire, working with adults of a range of ages, supporting people to resolve depression, anxiety, loss, find a sense of purpose and enjoy life more fully.

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