Note: This article was originally published in the Summer 2004 edition of Cutting Edge, the online newsletter of The Meadows.
Denial is not a River in Egypt
By Robert Fulton, MA, LISAC, Administrator, The Meadows
One of the wittiest adages we hear in 12-Step recovery is “Denial is not a river in Egypt.” It is so witty, in fact, that many recovering people repeat it without asking themselves the absolutely important question, “If denial isn’t a river in Egypt, what is it?”
The answer seems too obvious for further inspection. Denial is about denying that I had a psychological problem. Most often, I denied that I was an alcoholic or an anorexic or that I was a sex addict. But now that I have admitted to myself and to another person that I am any one of those things, I am no longer in denial. I am back in control.
Sadly, intellectual admission often leaves the deeper denial in place – intact and poisonous. The alcoholic awakens every morning swearing not to have another drink and, by 5 p.m., heads to the bar. The anorexic, who has planned three healthy meals, looks at herself in the mirror, sees a fat woman, and decides not to eat. The sex addict at the SA 12-Step program shares the agony of his addiction and, after the meeting, hits on the attractive newcomer.
In recovery, behavior cannot be the driving force. Intellect and affect are the driving forces that determine my behavior. As an addict, I behaviorally shut off my affect and distort my intellect, so that I maintain the behavior that protects me from the awful confrontation with my childhood shame.
Denial of affect involves disassociating from those feelings that our primary caregivers taught us to regard as shameful. Our caregivers taught us to dishonor our feelings, because to honor them and to communicate was to be punished and to be shamed. We learned to separate self from the emotions generated by the truth of what we witnessed. In order to avoid the worth destroying poison of carried shame, we were forced to deny the feelings we had when we witnessed an emotional event in the family.
In order to medicate the pain of having abandoned our authentic self, we find ways to medicate the dissonance – we deny the truth of what we think; we submerge and camouflage the truth of what we feel. The self that emerges from the pain of denial becomes, in most adults, the only kind of “maturity” to which they have access.
We deny on an intellectual level, and we deny on an affective level. We deny intellectually by telling ourselves that two plus two is five. We were empowered to do that, or conditioned to do that, when we were growing up – and two plus two never added up to four in Mommy and Daddy’s household. Our father was a falling-down alcoholic. We said to Mommy, “Daddy’s drunk out on the lawn. He’s passed out. He looks like he’s dead. I’m scared.” And she said to us, “Don’t worry about it; he’s fine.”
The kid knows that the fear of his father’s drunken abandonment is real, but to have that truth, that reality, denied by his mother is to have his reality denied. The child then wonders what’s wrong with himself. Mind you, he doesn’t ask what’s wrong with his father or his mother. They are the ones acting shamefully, yet it is he who feels ashamed – he is carrying their shame. Because the kid’s real fear of the father’s death is being made illegitimate by the lies of the mother, the child himself is now experiencing a death of self – of his own emotional reality and his access to it. He is not allowed to feel the fear of losing his father.
This is the most damaging kind of shame-based denial, because it attacks the child’s very authenticity. He has learned that to have the terrifying emotions attendant upon Daddy’s drunkenness is not all right. Disassociation from self becomes habitual. Denial of self is honored in the dysfunctional family system.
When the child is older and he witnesses a shameful act, the kind of disassociation he experiences will be covered up with a more sophisticated form of social camouflage than when he was 5. For example, he may think that his father’s shameful drunkenness will disgrace the family in the eyes of the neighbors. The primary lie that Daddy is not drunk is justified by the need to remain socially acceptable. The young adult now needs a defense system that not only deflects his father’s shame, but protects his own social self as well. Such denial is often called loyalty and is praised as being politic. He is often told that his cover-up makes him a good citizen.
The child who has viewed his father’s shameful drunkenness may fear that his father will stop loving him should the father became aware that his son sees him as a failed father. In Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel fresco The Drunkenness of Noah, Noah’s two sons come into the tent and see him drunk, and they experience intense shame. They identify with their father’s unexpressed shame at having abandoned his children and given up power in regard to his sons. The intended Biblical lesson is that to see someone in his nakedness is to obtain power over them. Rarely has the Bible been so psychologically deluded. It is not the children who have power over the parent; it is the shameless parent who holds power over the children through the mechanism of carried shame, setting off a career of adapted wounded-child codependence.
So denial, better than alcohol, is the best dysfunctional medication for shame. However, denial cannot salve one against that sense of hopelessness and despair that is engendered when one loses connection to self. It is then that we feel the need to buddy up to an addictive process that will give a false sense of power, that will eliminate the fear in a moment, that yields that one-up posturing of denial and grandiosity.
When dealing with these disconnects, one is driven back not only to the newborn-to-age 5 feelings of shame but to the adapted state of ages 5 to 17 as well. The early shame sets the stage for the acting out, through which each individual learns to dramatize brilliantly his dysfunctional avoidance of emotional truth. It is an artistic way of keeping from connecting to oneself and avoiding the agony of re-experiencing the death of our truth.
There is a Catch-22 in this artistic denial, no matter what relief it seems to give us. Even when we manage to get in touch with our honest feelings, if we do not have the tools to survive the encounter, we cycle right back into the wound of abandonment or of shame.
Feelings then seem to us a trigger to an unhealable vulnerability. They become something that we need to stay away from, which is why one of the first things a good clinician does (once a patient is reasonably stable) is to urge the patient to drop into his honest feelings, and to let him know that it is okay, that he is okay. He needs the security to feel that accessing his affect will not kill him.
This is actually what happens in the Survivors Workshop. People begin to express their affective authenticity, and they are not shamed – they are honored. And they begin to honor themselves. I often remember what I always said in group: that we have to learn to honor our feelings, which is to hold them – and ourselves – in high regard. Our feelings are our windows of insight into the depth of who we are. But all of that is for naught under the guise of affective denial when, in a defended posture, we compulsively seek to offset the initial wound of being defective, of being unworthy.
In reactivity to the carried shame of abusive childhoods, there are those who acquiesced and expressed their shame, pain, fear and anger in neurotic, seditious ways. Then there are those who rebelliously fought for some kind of voice, but who lacked the tools for connection. In either case, the trauma disconnects one from oneself.
The aim of treatment is to allow me to reconnect to me for the first time as the beneficent parent, the loving parent who needs to be nurtured for who and what I am. At the same time, I learn to present my authenticity and accept the vulnerability that my truth may meet within the world, even if the world shuns me. You may be sad, but you will have the joy and power and value of not disconnecting from the self. You do not rise above and go one-up; acceptance of one’s imperfect perfection is a soaring disengagement from that which is destructive.
People taking the first steps to deal with the trauma of carried shame will choose submission rather than surrender. This submission is often an intellectual admission that there is a problem. But unless the submission is also a surrender to the will, this apparent surrender of dignity will leave a bad taste; it will feel dissonant. It will be sensed as a false admission, one made to keep the depth of the real problem at a distance. The feeling of true surrender is internal peace. Only I will know. But I know I have surrendered when I feel that peace.
The concept of denial and surrender being in that same crucible is vitally important, because denial is a form of false security through control. If, by admitting we are addicted, we seek clarity for the sake of control, it is only to give ourselves the illusion of safety. We remain terrified of letting go of control, because if we let go of this charade, we are going to be left in the abysmal pit of carried shame. So our whole life has been to orchestrate this nonsense. We know it to be nonsense, but we don’t know anything other, so we medicate the nonsense.
In recovery, however, I am now invited to go to a place of powerlessness, and that is a miraculous paradox, because it is only there that I can be empowered. The first thing that has to happen is for you to acknowledge that change is impossible without help. When I surrender, I learn to trust another to give me that help, to help me get on the path to recovery. The recovering individual, once the path becomes a reality, takes the path and continues to go forward.
When somebody gets into recovery, and they begin to date again, it is like being back at 14 or 15, even though she is 40 or 50, because it is a whole new experience. There is the similar excitement and fear and passion – it is a whole new way of relating. It is not a state of authenticity and acceptance of self within memory. Because it is new, it is innocent. In recovery, we experience “innocence.”
And so the healthy lineage allows for the delight, the life, the joy, the possibility and the joy-pain – ever new, ever going forward. Healthy, functional shame, not the sickness of carried shame, is what fuels the joy and the richness, because it reminds me of my authentic self; it puts me back on the path, back on line. As you move in a new venture, it is all new and, therefore, a delight.
And you may find that you have overstepped and then feel ashamed of a behavior because it was all new, but it is now functional shame that allows you to become more intimate, to feel more deeply. I am imperfect, and I make mistakes. My mistakes may cause me pain, and they will. But they don’t make me bad. They only make me human. And that, I don’t have to deny.