Denial Has A Purpose

More wisdom from my mom~Linda Edelstein, Ph.D.

There is no going back from understanding. 

I have a new book coming out early next year, What Do I Say?:  The Therapist’s Guide To Answering Client Questions.  It’s a book for graduate students and early career clinicians in psychology, counseling and social work. I wrote it with Charlie Waehler and we are now in the process of our final, final, almost final edit.  Rereading it has made me think about some of the ideas I found compelling in the original writing.

Today, I edited a section that mentions the idea of “unknowing.”  The following was the example from our book that illustrates the point and got my wheels spinning.

“There is one lie I used to tell (I don’t say this anymore) to clients in the beginning of therapy. It would occur after we had talked about aspects of their lives that they said they wanted to change, whether it was emotions, personal behaviors or interpersonal relationships.  If someone asked, “What if I don’t like the change?” I often responded, “Then you can change back.” This is not true.  They certainly can continue to change but the idea of undoing change, as if you were untying a shoe, is equivalent to unknowing.  How can you reclaim unknowing?”             

There are some many times in life when we learn something that is unwelcome.  It could be as small as finding out we are tone deaf.  It could be as gigantic as a medical diagnosis or a betrayal.  And, surprising, unwelcome news doesn’t have to only come from the outside – it might come from inside ourselves.  For example, when we realize that we no longer love our partner, we know that we have reached the end of a job, we finally understand that our parent is an addict, or we comprehend that our child is not the person we had hoped. Information like this changes our world.  Just as my client who asked, “What if I don’t like the change?” we can’t go backward, we can’t ‘unknow’.  We can’t reclaim innocence.

I’m convinced that the inability to ‘unknow’ is one reason people fight against understanding their situations.  They realize that they will have to live with their knowledge and probably act on it, even if that action is acceptance, not leaving, screaming or throwing things. So, it becomes preferable to never gain the knowledge.  That is probably what denial is all about.  There are things in life that can be undone – hair grows back and possessions can be bought and sold.  Other things, if not undone, can be fixed by apologies, better behavior, and future improvement.  But certain knowledge exists in that category of, “Oh no, what do I do with this?”  That last category compels us forward.

To read more from Dr. Edelstein check out her blog here 
What do you  think, do you have something you wish you could “unknow”?

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