What is obstinate denial? It’s a particular kind of denial, one rooted in obstinacy. Now, to be sure, obstinacy is sometimes a good and necessary thing. There are times when we do well to be unyielding. Resisting succumbing to cultural presure to compromise a vital moral principle is just one example. But there are times being obstinate can keep us from seeing or accepting some very important realities. And doing that too often or at the wrong times can negatively impact our overall character.
Not All Denial is the Same
I’ve wirtten several times before on denial. (See, for example: Denial – What It Is and Isn’t.) And I’ve made the point that we unfortunately use the term more loosely than was originally intended. Freud and the early psychology theorists conceptualized denial as an unconscious process. And it was thought to be nature’s way of keeping unbearable emotional pain out of our conscious awareness. This kind of denial is a very real phenomenon. And I give a poignant example of it in In Sheep’s Clothing, Character Disturbance, The Judas Syndrome, and How Did We End Up Here?.
Obstinate denial is not an unconscious process. It’s easy for it to become routine, habitual, or “automatic,” however. And that’s precisely what gets some character-impaired folks into trouble. They don’t grow in character because whenever a particular reality challenges their preferred ways of seeing and doing things they simply refuse to acknowledge its legitimacy. Dismissing out of hand potentially character-building information is a major way some folks stay “stuck” in their overall development.
Mental filtering is the process of giving little attention or mindful consideration to anything a person finds of little value. It’s an “I don’t care to look at it, think about it, or accept it,” kind of mentality. And as long as I refuse to consider other perspectives, I remain entrenched in my own narrow view of things.
From the outside, mental filtering can seem like denial. But genuine denial is unconscious, whereas mental filtering is quite conscious, deliberate. And it is a close cousin to obstinate denial.
We see both obstinate denial and mental filtering at work in many of our sociocultural and political debates. It’s partly why our divisions keep getting deeper. It’s hard enough to have an open, respectful conversation about important issues. But it’s truly impossible when each side just knows how valid their concerns and perpectives are and how unnecessary it is, therefore, to seriously consider anything else. Perhaps that’s why so many folks might find even the very first of the “commandments” of good character I discuss in Essentials for the Journey so foreign.
I discuss some of the different faces of “denial” on this week’s Character Matters podcast.