Denial and human relations

by Jane Cull

Two of the many issues in my life that I have wanted to understand are rejection and approval. I have always had a strong need for approval, especially from men. As a female, I would constantly do things to gain acceptance; from my father, employers, partners and friends. If I was rejected I would strive even harder to please so that I would be loved and accepted.

Rejection for me, triggers thoughts of "I'm not good enough", "what's wrong with me, it must be my fault"; a huge questioning and a doubting of myself, and my abilities. Much of my time has been wasted in the effort of proving myself to people; proving that I am an intelligent capable female, with a mind of my own, full of untapped potential. Self acceptance and approval became very important to me and
as a result I began researching the mechanisms of rejection (relations of denial). I designed a process which is now part of my consulting product range from which I gained some very deep insights. Initially I performed the process on myself and for many days I was very angry at what had been revealed. My life was laid out before me and I was not happy. However the understanding that I gained provided me with the tools to change my life, to live my life in my own way, not as affected by the opinions of others.

From this understanding I will outline the elements and outcomes associated with denial; how it arises, how to gain awareness of it, and how to change it .

The Elements of Denial

Experiences of rejection are common in modern culture: the denial of emotions, the suppression of honesty, of our vulnerability, and ultimately of ourselves. Emotion and vulnerability are deemed as a weakness, but aren't they what make us human?

We often deny our humanity by suppressing our emotions and vulnerability in an effort to gain love and acceptance. Being unemotional and in control is considered acceptable, because it is considered rational and strong. Being emotional and vulnerable is considered irrational and weak. To be strong and in control can be a denial of our fundamental nature when it suppresses the expression of vulnerability and emotion.

So how does denial happen? In my experience denial happens in everyday conversations; the conversations that deny a persons experiences, that deny their view of their world. These conversations usually involve one person claiming to be the objective authority on something, believing that his or her opinion is universally true or right. The implication is that we must view "the world" objectively in the same way as the authority; that this is the only way and thus the only world.

Situations of this kind deny individual experiences. If a person accepts the denial of their opinion, two things usually happen. They may begin to question and doubt their perception and knowledge, or they may start to defend their experiences by proving and justifying themselves.

Defending, proving and justifying are generally associated with the emotions of anger, resentment, frustration and bitterness. Accusations of blame and guilt are also part of the defending position - "I'm right, you're wrong" conversations. When a person is defending themselves, the other is perceived as being in opposition - a threat. The perceived threat can be met with distancing, by establishing boundaries as a form of protection from denial or rejection. Consequently, trust, intimacy and sharing can be lost through the fear of rejection.

Anger is very much a part of relations of denial, in fact anger is mutual denial. In most situations anger triggers anger, reinforcing mutual denial. Understanding cannot be reached through mutual denial as both participants protect by distancing themselves through establishing boundaries, thus generating and maintaining a lose, lose situation.

Experiences of denial in the form of rejection through anger can often be expressed as statements of "you're wrong, stupid, ignorant" etc., and will have consequences on self esteem; a doubting of experiences and knowledge. This pattern will become familiar if a person participates regularly in relations of denial.

Self doubt leads to insecurity and experiences of unworthiness, e.g. "What's wrong with me". Or, "I'm not good enough, I don't deserve to experience what I want in life". And, "No one cares about me and what I want; nobody loves me". Depression, isolation, loneliness and abandonment flourish as low self esteem deepens and rejection intensifies. When the individual's insecurities are triggered, they may respond in anger as a means to protect against rejection.

As rejection and denial become increasingly familiar, love and acceptance are often pushed away - the "I don't deserve" pattern reappears in the form of denial.

A person with low self esteem will usually have a strong need for acceptance and approval; demonstrating the need for acceptance through satisfying and meeting other peoples needs before their own. To gain acceptance usually an individual will do anything, go anywhere, be what other people want them to be. They no longer trust themselves. They will try to fit the persona of other people who appear to be more worthy or successful rather than being themselves through self acceptance. As a result many people have lost the ability to think and act for themselves. They will constantly ask other people for their opinions, because they don't trust themselves and their own views on life. They will then act on others opinions rather than their own.

Being told what to do and think all the time erodes a persons ability to think and act for themselves, thus setting up dependence on the authority on what to say, what to do and what to think. As a result any form of spontaneity and creativity will be diminished as they seek to match their own views or actions with those of the authority. They will now rely on the authority to set their direction and purpose for them; anything is better than feeling confused about what to do and what to think.

This is a situation that many women find themselves in.

Now that we have the awareness and understanding of relations of denial, what other alternatives are there?

Alternatives to Denial

One alternative is responsible rejection, where we reject someone or something taking responsibility for our preferences. For example, "I don't like what you are doing. Can you please go away and do it somewhere else". In this way we can reject responsibly without claiming to be the objective authority. Instead we claim authority and responsibility for our own lives, perceptions and preferences.

It is important to state our preferences. By stating a preference, it is clear to the person listening that our liking or disliking is a personal preference and that we are acting according to our preferences.

Another alternative is to acknowledge the other's experience. Learning and understanding occur through curiosity. For example, we can ask "Why don't you like what I am saying? Oh, I don't like it, because it reminds me of another experience". "Oh, okay, so what was your experience and why did it remind you of me?" "Oh, that was because of what so and so said to me". "Ah, now I understand, that must have been very painful for you."

To diffuse a conversation of relations of denial, offer an acknowledgement as an alternative. For example, "Well, that's your experience and I acknowledge that but, are you interested in my experience?" If the person is not interested, then walk away from the conversation with responsibility. Another way to diffuse could be, "I'm not interested in participating in this conversation (relations of denial). However, I am interested in sharing my experiences with you where we can both learn from and understand each other, what would you prefer?"

To take responsibility for our preferences is to act with awareness. What we choose to say or do is done with responsibility, where we have choices as to who we want to interact with and how we want to interact with each other. After all, isn't it better if we choose to interact in acceptance and acknowledgement (loving and caring) where learning and understanding can take place, rather than in relations of denial?

I hope this outline provides some understanding and insight into rejection and relations of denial and how we can change the dynamics. If we can understand the dynamics involved then we can begin to change the ways in which we relate to and converse with each other.

Jane Cull is a consultant on personal and social change. The conclusions of this article were derived from a Relationship Process originally designed by Jane which forms part of a greater systemic series of processes Jane uses in her consultancy. These processes explore behaviours in our everyday relationships and seek to highlight patterns of denial so that we can change them These processes are part of her consultancy which looks at the ways in which we relate with each other in personal, family, social and business relationships.

For further details, please contact Jane Cull at Life's Natural Solutions. Her contact details are:
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