Thursday, September 16, 2010

Denial: The Perpetrator’s Evil Accomplice

by Dr. Gina Simmons

"I think my husband is sexually abusing our baby," a counseling client confided. The young mother reported disturbing observations, including: mysterious abrasions on her daughter’s rear end, the child screaming every time the dad approached, and, the kicker, "I saw him naked with an erection in the baby’s room last night!" I told her I needed to file a child abuse report. She agreed to a safety plan to protect her baby.

The next day an investigator called me to discuss the case. I repeated what the mother had told me, including more details than reported here. "She told me you exaggerated what she said," the detective told me. "She denies ever telling you she thought her husband was abusing the child." As we talked, the detective described the mother as "cagey, guarded, and highly protective of her husband." The detective stated, “Unfortunately, it is our policy not to pursue these cases when the only witness recants. Unless you have other evidence, there’s nothing I can do."

The mother never returned my phone calls. Several months later, I ran into her in a public place. As is my practice, I don’t talk to clients in public unless they choose to speak to me. This protects their privacy. She approached me and said "Hello." I responded, "How are you?"

"My husband and I are great! Things have never been better," she said with a stiff, non-Duchenne smile.

Denial, the rejection of a truth too uncomfortable to accept, really sickens me. It keeps kids in abusive homes, allows pedophiles to serve communion, and enables killers to get away with murder. Sometimes denial serves a positive function. In a New York Times article, Benedict Carey describes how denial can allow us to idealize our loved ones by overlooking flaws and exaggerating strengths. This serves as a way to preserve family relationships, and it fosters loyalty and healthy attachment. Understanding and empathizing with our loved ones encourages forgiveness and domestic harmony.

Often a couple comes into therapy with what they call "communication problems." After 25 years of experience, I’ve learned that the problems often have nothing to do with communication and everything to do with denial. Many couples who reported "communication problems" in the first session eventually revealed their denial of problems like:

· Drug/alcohol addiction
· Family violence
· Extramarital affairs
· Child abuse
· Criminal activity

The real therapy doesn’t start until clients begin to tell the truth. Otherwise, the truth remains invisible under the haze of denial. Author Richard Bach writes: “The worst lies are the lies we tell ourselves. We live in denial of what we do, even what we think. We do this because we are afraid."

How do you know when you’re in denial?

· You are 5 feet tall and weigh 250 pounds (yes, you eat too much).
· Your friends and family hate the way your boy/girlfriend treats you (yes, s/he’s bad).
· Your friends and family fear for your safety (yes, your behavior is risky).
· You were arrested for DUI (yes, you have a drug/alcohol problem).
· Your son violates his probation (yes, he’s resumed his criminal activity).

As an anger management expert, I work to help people lower their levels of hostility and increase empathy for others. Empathy helps us understand and forgive. We can empathize with an abuser who suffered brutal treatment in childhood. Empathy for the abuser does not mean we should excuse abuse.

We teach people healthy ways to cope with strong, uncomfortable emotions so they don’t need to rely on denial to get through the day. But as any criminal profiler will tell you, many crimes of violence stem not from the heat of rage but from the cold calculations of a psychopath. And for every psychopath moving through the world looking for a victim, there’s a denying enabler looking the other way.

Photos courtesy of Google Images.


Gina Simmons, Ph.D., is a licensed psychotherapist and consultant specializing in anger management and workplace violence prevention. She writes for the Manage Anger Daily blog.


Anonymous said...

It is wonderful that there are people like you in the world who can help people see the difference between healthy empathy for our loved ones, and dangerous denial of truly sick behavior that ultimately leads to someone being a victim. Hopefully more will seek your advice and guidance if they recognize they are in denial. Someone has to stand up and help the helpless! Kelly R.

DrGina said...

Thank you for your comment Kelly. Well said!

Curtis said...

Unfortunately too many people can not handle the truth so they can never make that BIG first step to getting healthy. They will go to the end of their days holding inside all the horrible things they did to others throughout their journey in life. If only it was easier to reach these people & start them on their journey to a healthy mind. Maybe I can invent some fairy dust that we can blow their way and allow them to start the healing process with professionals like you Gina helping them.

Anonymous said...

What an excellent example of what denial can look like and the extent to which it can harm others. Also, a gentle, but firm wake-up call to anyone who may be in denial! Davida P.

DrGina said...

Thank you, Davida and Curtis, for your comments.