Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Being in Denial - A Uniquely Human Tendency

On the excellent website,, the article "The Five Stages of Loss and Grief" begins with this statement:

"The stages of mourning and grief are universal and are experienced by people from all walks of life. Mourning occurs in response to an individual’s own terminal illness or to the death of a valued being, human or animal. There are five stages of normal grief that were first proposed by Elisabeth K├╝bler-Ross in her 1969 book On Death and Dying."

As a reminder, the five stages are:
  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • Depression
  • Acceptance
The article makes an important point: "Grieving is a personal process that has no time limit, nor one 'right' way to do it."

For some people, the grieving could take years. My mother was 44 years old when my father died. For a variety of reasons, she had never worked her way to acceptance 36 years later, when she died. Other people skip stages, or work through them in a different sequence. Highly realistic people can reach acceptance in a month, a week, a day, or an hour.

Another point, not mentioned in the article: The five stages apply to other kinds of loss besides the loss of life. For example, it's normal to grieve when something important has been lost, stolen or damaged by accident; when a couple divorces; when a grown child leaves home; or when someone loses a job.

Even the prospect of future loss can cause grieving, especially if the loss seems inevitable.

People can experience grief from a tough problem, especially if a significant loss is a likely consequence.

In other words, the first stage, denial, can be triggered by all sorts of adversity.

You're familiar with the phrase, "being in denial."

When someone is faced with a particularly unpleasant fact of life or an issue that will be hard to cope with, it is common for human beings to react initially with some version of the thought, "That can't be true," "Surely it won't be that bad," "It won't happen to me," or "There must be some mistake."

"These are not the symptoms of cancer."

"My daughter is not anorexic."

"The hurricane will probably turn away before it hits land."

"I'm not that much overweight."

"Smoking isn't as dangerous as they say it is."

"The climate isn't really warming."

Alexa, 2013 photo by Kathleen Scott
I say this kind of response is typical of "human beings," because I know of no other species that reacts to reality this way. I have two adorable cats, definitely intelligent life-forms and wonderful companions. But no cat would ever deny reality. They're smart, but not smart enough to deny reality. Acceptance seems to come automatically to a cat. Somehow the uniquely superior intelligence of human beings gives us the ability conclude that what's real isn't really true.

Of course, being in denial can cause one to stumble. If you don't accept what is, you won't be able to deal with it. You can't solve a problem that you believe is "not a problem."

Any of us can fall into this trap. I certainly have, though at this stage of my life I've made it my mission to watch out for it, to make a habit of confronting reality head on so I can deal with it.

How about you?

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., Copyright 2012. Building Personal Strength .

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