Two types of denial – and why we should look at this first

Image by Andrew Martin from Pixabay

Some years ago, I took a MOOC (Massive online open course) called Making Sense of Climate Change Denial. I recall I learned the many ways people would deny the science and how we could respond. What the course never taught me was the denial within ourselves (those of us who don’t deny the facts about climate change and all the rest of the combo crises: resources depletion, social injustice, etc.) and how our human psychology could trick our minds to think we are aware and doing the best, while we are still deluding ourselves.

Knowing where we sit in the denial spectrum is a helpful tool, both to be accountable to ourselves and each other: we can open our hearts and invite ourselves and each other to explore questions and ideas and accept that we all carry a bit of denial inside. This may help when we approach others (particularly close family members and loved ones who seem to be “in another world”)

At the individual level, this can help us to be vigilant: denial is a defence mechanism that allows us to feel safe and comfortable, to not shake the ground too much and to not go crazy, living in perpetual anxiety and obsessed by things we don’t have control over. So, let’s first express our gratitude to our own denial, as the only thing it wants is to keep us safe. In her book Feeding your demons, Tsultrim Allione explains how we can invite those areas of ourselves we are not so happy of proud of and make peace with them.  Another excellent resource for working with conflict (this time in groups) is Sitting in the fire, by Arnold Mindell.

Most of the denial also come from centuries of indoctrination/colonization passed from generation to generation: this includes from ideas of who and what we are, our relationship and role in the world and what we deserve or are entitle to, to ideas of what’s right and good and what’s not. We have learned to fear, deny, hide, avoid and “fix” pain, discomfort, conflict and anything that reminds us of the cyclical nature of life: we teach our children that decay, aging, decomposition and our own body outputs are gross, bad and need to be flushed, hidden and not talked about.

We have been taught that there is only one type and face of progress and that all sane human beings should aspire to it: living Westernized middle-class lives, flushing toilets, individual cars, tap water, electricity, extending lives and youth, access to whatever we want whenever we want, mass education and “jobs”, money as an exchange system…we rarely stop to think that none of those are universal and that many indigenous cultures around the world have lived for centuries without embracing any of those ideas of how life “should” be.

So, the second step is to be compassionate and understanding with ourselves and others whenever we fall into denial.

Being grateful, compassionate and understanding doesn’t mean accepting, we need a plan to challenge our own denial and that of our loved ones as well as the wider community.

The third step may be inviting curiosity about our own and other people’s denial and dig into what’s behind: what are we protecting and from what? Is there another way we can provide the same feeling of sanity and safety that is not denial?

Hint: in my case, I am exploring the extreme opposite as an offer to my own denial, anxiety and pain (more on this in my next post): walking in the fire, learning how-to walk-through discomfort, anxiety and other usually unwelcome emotions and physical sensations. Learning to be curious about and embrace decay, destruction, pain, aging, failure, falling, losing, death and all the things we have been told are wrong and learn how to dance with them and still preserve dignity and grace. It is a difficult one, but I’ve been exploring it for a few years now and I have come to see the beauty and strength in this approach. Another tool that helps me to be grounded is the concept of Deep Times: understanding my connection to our ancestors (including non-human) and the inter-connection with all in the universe, creates a sense of safety and sanity that go beyond physical possessions and relationships and allow me to accept the inevitability of loss, suffering, grief, destruction, death and collapse as a cyclical process of death and rebirth.

The fourth step is community and accountability: having a circle of people (even one, even online) to be accountable to and who stays vigilant with us without criticizing or judging but still pointing out when we fall prey of denial and delusion and gently supporting us to face reality and continue in our path.

In any plan, the first thing is understanding what we are trying to change or eradicate, so this post is about the types of denial we or our loved ones or community may be suffering from and the exploration of tools of how we can work with them. (spoiler: I don’t have all the answers, and that is partially why I’m inviting people to bi-weekly Zoom calls to discuss this and other DA and WTR related topics, this blog is the evolving fruit of my own exploration and curiosity).

It was both shocking and refreshing for me to learn (by reading the DA paper) about the two subtle forms of denial identified by sociologist Stanley Cohen (States of Denial: Knowing about Atrocities and Suffering).

He talks about “interpretative” and “implicative (or implicatory)” denial, where interpretative happens when we choose and interpret facts in ways that makes them “safer” for our minds: a mechanism to protect ourselves from something that may be too scary, too disruptive and may even imply we need to let things go, including our attachments, identities, and all we were told by this society we “need”, “deserve” and is “real” (italic parts are my own additions).

Implicative is more difficult for me to tackle, according to Prof Bendell’s interpretation (I haven’t read Cohen’s book yet), implicative denial happens when we “respond by busying ourselves on activities that do not arise from a full assessment of the situation”.

Prof Kari Marie Norgaard says: “In terms of climate change, the phenomenon of “implicatory denial” can be understood as a failure to integrate one’s knowledge of climate change into their everyday life or transform it into social action.”

Norgaard continues: “For many of us, thinking about climate change evokes a series of troubling emotions such as guilt, fear, and hopelessness, and while the majority of us may understand the enormity of climate change, many are afraid of it. As a form of protection against the dire realities of climate change, these emotions manifest into a type of inertia that can result in detachment from the issue and from taking the necessary actions to address it. Furthermore, climate change denial is collectively reinforced by our governments and politicians, who promote the cycle of “implicatory denial” as a way to ensure social cohesion and stability.”

This may explain why we are not all in civil disobedience, challenging the very basis of the work we do, what we study, the nature, structure and dynamics of our lifestyles and the very basis of our civilization.

To summarize:

  • Everyone chooses the facts they incorporate to their story or belief system.
  • Even facts are contaminated by centuries of colonialism and indoctrination, nothing is completely objective and “solid”.
  • There are three types of denial: literal (not accepting the facts, I didn’t discuss it here), interpretative (how we cherry pick and interpret facts to keep ourselves safe and sane) and implicative (not acting in a logical way that responds to what the facts are showing)
  • Denial is a normal response to things that are too difficult to digest or challenge our status quo, safety and comfort.
  • We can’t fight denial as it backfires: so let’s walk with it, accept we all have our portion of denial, and then dissect and explore it so we can become aware of where we sit.
  • Other people’s denials have a similar function, let’s be understanding and compassionate and approach them with care, curiosity and invitations to explore.
  • One way to calm our demons may be asking them what they really want and how we can provide the same with other resources and tools, different from denial.
  • Learning how to walk with the discomfort of what scares and hurts us is a way to “see with ancient/new eyes” and embrace a new form of strength and beauty. It also helps to navigate denial and shift it into something else.
  • Being accountable and supportive to each other may be the best tool we have: abandoning others, rejecting them, challenging them and fighting them may only build resistance and weakness.

Next post: dancing with our demons

2 Comments on “Two types of denial – and why we should look at this first

  1. Thanks. Great work again. From personal experience of suicide (loss, ideation, survival, study) I am perhaps having an easier time than most, although such a statement is deep into territory for which words are relatively meaningless. Language is crucial, and far more complex than a few words, or any amount of words. Anyway, I’ve found Dabrowski/Tillier’s Theory of Positive Disintegration immensely helpful in explaining growth via trauma, and lots else. Bill Tillier (to me) is a Hawking of the inner universe (which is basically the external universe too). – also Thanks again. Take it easy as you can. Love, Alan


    • Wow! Thank you Alan for the resource and your words…I have heard of PD but never dig into it, will do for sure!


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