The art (and science) of denial.
Repeat with me: nothing is exactly how it looks at first impression. Nothing!
Look… If you’re here wishing for a quick “how-to” guide on how to understand people who are in denial… Or any other sort of flowchart or bite-size piece of information about the human psyche… You’re wasting your time. Don’t even bother reading, goodbye, see you soon.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not a fan of complicating matters. I’m all about organising, compartmentalising, coming up with methods and processes for everything. And the simpler they get, the better. I’m zero-frills and straight to the point. Hi, Apollonian person here, reporting for duty.
However, regardless of what I ENJOY doing, sometimes I’ve got to admit there is no way to simplify the situation. Sorry. If I could, I would; But when it comes to why people choose a bunch of complex mental gymnastics leading to denial (instead of, ya know, simply being honest with themselves…), there is no simple answer. There’s never a simple answer for that, ever.
Some (the stubborn, I’m guessing — by the way, hi, how are you doing?) would still insist that “well, Lucy, but there ACTUALLY is a simple answer for that: fear”. And to that I’ll reply, “no”. I don’t believe fear is behind denial at all. Maybe other closely related feelings, such as shame and guilt… But fear? Unlikely. Here’s why: when you’re afraid of facing a reality, you avoid it altogether. You don’t dress it up to fool yourself into bypassing that initial fear (or, let me rephrase it: your DEFAULT INSTINCT is not to dress up the situation as something else, a.k.a. using the artifice of denial for a productive purpose). No, instincts are very often not productive. They’re just instant reactions we have. Hence, fear is unlikely to be the main cause for denial — or at least that chronic, insistent denial I’ve had the displeasure of dealing with in other people ever since I remember. And that debunks the “simple answer”.
So let’s get to the complex answer without further ado:
Who is intuitive/”creative”? And who is more methodic?
When you look at an overzealous nanny who always looks “put together” and appears to be a germophobe — is that person methodic?
When you look at a freelance programmer running her own startup because she appreciates that freedom — is that person intuitive and creative?
Think again. None of the above assumptions are correct. In fact, they’re inverted. Personality-wise, this specific kind of nanny is most likely intuitive, whereas that specific kind of programmer is most likely methodic. Here’s why:
a) It could very well be the case (and often IS the case) that a person who fits the above nanny’s description is simply in denial about how creative and intuitive she really is, perhaps because in her field of work it’s advantageous to sell an image of “very put together and on-top-of-my-shit” instead of… ya know… “ah, sure, I use my intuition for problem-solving a lot and enjoy making assumptions about what a baby or toddler might need coming from a purely emotional place I can’t quite explain in logical terms to you; Also, I’m great at cleaning surfaces because that’s where kids will try to climb all the time, but it’s not really my job to focus on any kind of deep-clean or more methodic manner of daily organisation”. Sure this second description is more accurate and thorough, but it’s not the first thing that came to your mind when I first brought up this particular scenario. That’s because, I’ll repeat, denial is very often at play in similar scenarios. And I’m not implying it as a negative or “bad” thing here, necessarily. I’m simply telling you it exists and impacts our collective perception of people’s REAL personalities when all we know about them is superficial information about their job.
b) On the other hand, the freelance programmer who perhaps came up with a new app or solution and founded her own startup SOUNDS LIKE a person whose entire personality is primarily leaning on intuition/creativity… But is she? Well, I’m not talking absolutes here (and this is a mere exercise in imagination; let’s not generalise), but chances are that assumption is based on an illusion, not a reality. You see, when we hear buzzwords like “freelance” and “startup”, we immediately think of innovation and spontaneity; but that’s just a knee-jerk reaction. Perhaps there is a lot more nitty-gritty clockwork behind it (not to mention fixing bugs, anticipating certain problems, keeping an eye on stats) which we’re not paying attention to because, well… It’s boring and it’s backstage. Who cares? But it’s there nonetheless; And if you’re not the kind of person who has a knack for this kind of methodism, perhaps you can even FOOL YOURSELF into trying that out… but on the long run, you simply wouldn’t be able to sustain the lifestyle I described above — regardless of how awe-inspiring or out-of-the-box is the product being sold.
And that’s where some people have identity crises because “I invested so much in this/that career… I was so certain it would be good for me… Guess I’m a failure” — no, sweetie, you’re not a failure. You just didn’t know yourself enough, or maybe you did but chose denial instead because something-something-go-with-the-crowd-and-never-question-them.
The above realisation is something I had, not only with some inspiration by recent studies in Neuroscience (and a degree in Business Studies); but also because I’ve always considered myself someone “essentially creative”… until getting into Accounting and absolutely THRIVING — far more than I ever did in the so-called creative industries. I thought, “wait a second… Something is not quite right”. And indeed, it wasn’t. I had been in denial about a fundamental part of my personality all these years; And everyone around me was in on the same illusion because, I guess, on a surface-level, I look like your stereotype of “intuitive creative person”; Although I’m anything BUT that. Oh, but… Look, I’m not completely useless at having a sense of style; Look, I’m not a robot and it turns out I have feelings; Look, I DARE taking an interest in music and art; Look, I am a woman. Boom! Instantly classified as “intuitive” via these stereotypes (or worse, the combination of them).
But this helped me, even if just somewhat accidentally, FINALLY understand why I have a hard time talking to people who use too much emotional thinking: it turns out I’m left-brained, and no, that doesn’t make me “a total nerd oblivious to creativity in life” (I’ll link to the recent study that debunks this popular 1960s assumption here again). It just means I find more comfort in facts and figures than gut feelings and personal assumptions. Both me and a right-brained person can get into music, but if they insist I learn it by “feeling the beat and doing what my heart wants” they’ll frustrate me. And if I insist they learn it by “looking at music theory and using the known patterns” I’ll frustrate them. The bottom line is, I need a firm ground to stand on. Don’t make empty promises, gimme receipts. I’m keeping the books here, lol.
Ya know that question we often ask kids old enough to go to school? “What do you want to become when you grow up?”
Yeah… I was never very good at answering it. Sometimes I said “I don’t know” and it would suffice. Other times, the annoying adult would start making suggestions, “what about this, what about that…” and that’d annoy me, so I got used to just making up the first answer that came to my mind. “A singer”, I’d say sometimes; “Travel agent”, other times. “Astronaut”, “librarian”, “scientist”, “TV presenter”. There were days when I was just after having some great ice-cream, so I’d say “I could have my own ice cream shop”. Other days, maybe Maths class was surprisingly entertaining — “Maths teacher. For sure”. On the surface, I probably sounded like the most naive and indecisive kid. But was I? Or maybe… The people asking me questions simply weren’t willing to SEE me for who I was?
I’m a helper. I’ve always been cut-out for professions where I get to help something bigger than I run smoothly; serve others and make them happy with the experience; take orders from above and ensure my job is well-done. I am not exactly the kind of person who CRAVES absolute power and absolute independence to do as I please, and boss others around, and create what I want, and dance to the beat of my own drum, and flex it on others, and… Phew! I’m exhausted already, simply imagining what I just wrote — let alone experience it.
But you see, I can’t say the above in most contexts (except, maybe, in a job interview. And even then, it DEPENDS what job I’m going for). Firstly, because most people AREN’T like me nowadays — they WANT power, WANT to feel in control and “right” about things, WANT to stay self-centered and oblivious to the potential they would have if they just stopped listening to their egos so much, stopped fighting/competing with their peers and realised they’re getting “divided to be conquered”, and tried building community a bit more.
So, with the above in mind, when these people hear someone like me saying “I’d rather follow than lead”, here is what could happen: 1) they will assume I lack self-confidence and try to “cheer me up” (because OF COURSE confidence equals extreme pathological individualism, huh? Or that’s what Capitalist brainwashing wants us all to believe…), or 2) they will, again, assume I am this doormat of a person and start trying to walk all over me (and then get offended/frustrated when I don’t let them). All because, hmmm… let’s see… I have more doubts than certainties, and feel no need whatsoever to pretend I know it all? Yes, sure, how very “doormat” of me. Suuuuure. So… What’s left for me to do? Well, I guess, lying is the safest bet. I’ve come to terms with that. Generally speaking, people want me to perform a character for them; They want me to say what they wanna hear. They’re not interested in the truth. Their egos can’t handle it (or will distort it to flatter themselves and diminish me).
But that’s ok, I can satisfy my craving for truth in the oracle (and also, evidently, here). In other contexts, I’ll “perform” as expected just so I can be left alone. It makes no difference deep down. I know who I am. Other people are the only ones missing out when they choose to label me instantly instead of getting to know me.
That’s why I’m talking about denial. Comfortable lies have always been more alluring than bitter truths. This is something an Ancient Greek would agree with me on, so I’m not exactly giving you NEW information about human behaviour.
Is the world truly complex? Or do we just come up with roundabouts explanations for simple things because that feels better than facing our complex emotions head-on?
“Vaccines cause autism”, some people say; “no, it happens at random”, the opposing crowd says. “[Insert other reason here] causes it”, a third crowd is now claiming. Meanwhile I’m just here thinking to myself… “What if inbreeding could be a factor?” —Oh but if I say that in certain circles I’ll definitely get cancelled; Never mind that my question is perfectly reasonable. It’s been ascertained autism is genetic. So… Yeah, but I know, it’s taboo, we don’t go there. We can’t just accuse people of, I guess, doing what they sometimes ARE indeed doing. Okay. We also can’t link a phenomenon we’re trying to destigmatise (neurodiversity) to a thing that’s definitely and positively still stigmatised. Even if sometimes there’s truth to that. Because… Feelings. Feelings are complex; potential realities, not so much. And it’s because of collective feelings and taboos and other things fuelled by shame-and-guilt that it takes us so long to make breakthroughs in Science. I’m not even affirming anything. I don’t know what the result of that hypothetical research would be. I could be very wrong. But what I DO know for sure is it’s not happening. People won’t go there.
Same for other completely different areas of knowledge — Ancient History, let’s say. “Did some Celts wear body paint?”; no, definitely not, that’s dumb Hollywood stereotypes. Definitely not? Why so sure? We know very little about them, objectively speaking. And the only accounts we DO have, from Roman observers- “Oh, but the Romans were prejudiced and biased and lying”. Why? Was everything they ever wrote a lie? Unlikely. But it’s a bias, a feeling, some people have, that prevents them from even testing that hypothesis. They don’t want to think of their own distant ancestors and admit that they might not have fit today’s idea of “civilised”; They might have been as off-grid as certain Native American tribes today, and that in itself brings forth a lot of other feelings and other biases and other “stuff”… Okay. Let’s not go there. Stay in denial for now (But if you change your mind one day, click here).
So… Let’s take something a bit less human-focused. Physics. “The Earth is flat”, some people are now saying. The opposing crowd call them ignorant, dumb, uninformed — will information change their minds though? I don’t think so. Chances are they have already seen scientific explanations to why the Earth is not flat, and they don’t all come from NASA, so even if you’re one of the conspiracy theorists who say we’ve never been to space… Well, okay. Don’t believe NASA if you don’t wanna. Believe Isaac Newton, then? Or your preferred Ancient philosopher? You see, some people’s conviction in a flat Earth isn’t coming from a place of conspiracy. No… You’d only assume that if you, yourself, have a huge ego and only care about pointing out how “dumb” they are (because that makes YOU look so smart and feel very proud of yourself…) instead of trying to get to know them for real and see what’s behind the misconception. Flat-Earthers simply have (again, you guessed it) negative feelings. They feel resentful of the scientific community because of [insert unethical research of the past here] or [insert medical solution that didn’t save my family here] or you-name-it. It’s not from a place of intellect. It’s coming from the heart. So, the more you attack them, the more you fuel their resentment and the more vocal they’ll become.
It’s always easier to feel superior to others and laugh at them THAN try and actually solve the problem by giving them the hug they want. Oh no, that’s too girly. Too fluffy. It doesn’t match our current toxic masculine status quo. My bad. Sorry for the suggestion. You’re okay. Stay in denial for now.
The same goes for things like vocational theory. “You’re best for job X if you have this personality”; “you’re best for job Y if you have that other kind of personality”. Okay, I can get behind the premise… But when you look at the specifics, it’s all facades and socially conditioned stereotypes. Ain’t nobody focusing on what personalities could be most helpful in doing the goddamn job (what a novel concept…); No. We’d rather just look at which personalities can best embody the persona that will get first impressions through in a 10-minute interview. Never mind the fact they sometimes don’t have (or aren’t curious and interested in improving) the core skills essential to excelling at the job; As long as they look and act the part like actors going through a play, it’s all good. No wonder so many people change careers radically all the time. But you see, debunking social conditioning and belief in stereotypes and magical thinking and all that “stuff”… Requires first of all admitting we fell for the stuff. That’s never comfortable. People have huge egos; Admitting you were wrong doesn’t exactly comfort the ego. So I guess the answer, for now, is to stay in denial.
That’s okay. Denial can be fuelled by shame and guilt, but it’s not in and of itself a negative thing. It can hold us back, oh yes, big time; But that’s sometimes positive, aye? It gives you time to heal. So if denial is what you need, go for it.