Traditional Therapy Biases and “Denial”

By now, many of you readers are familiar with stories several of the readers have shared about their experiences in some form of therapy or counseling with a character-impaired relationship partner.  And perhaps you have also read some of the articles I’ve posted on the topic (see, for example:  Character Disturbance, Neurosis, and Therapy, Character Disturbance: Getting the Right Kind of Help) and are familiar with the caveats I’ve suggested must be observed when traditional methods are used to assess and deal with character dysfunction.  Some of you might also have read the various articles I’ve written on the rampant misuse – even by professionals – of certain psychological concepts, especially “defense mechanisms” and specifically the defense mechanism of denial.  But recently I’ve received an absolute deluge of emails (and contacts through the contact feature of this blog) from folks who’ve experienced frustration and disappointment in their counseling experiences.  Complaints range from the therapist being effectively impression-managed or “conned” by the disturbed character to even possibly blaming the victim in a covertly abusive situation.  But one of the main complaints about therapy experiences seems to be related to misconceptions about the concept of denial.  So, in the first of several articles that will once again address some of the typical pitfalls of traditional approaches, I thought I’d speak to the issue of denial, what it really is, what it looks like, and the problems that can be caused when it’s misinterpreted in therapeutic situations.

True denial is an unconscious action of the mind to defend a person against the experience of unbearable emotional pain.  I give an archetypal example of it in my books In Sheep’s Clothing and Character Disturbance:

Let’s take the [case] of a woman who has been married to the same man for 40 years.  She has just rushed him to the hospital because, while they were out in the yard working, he began having trouble speaking and looked in some distress.  The doctors then tell her that he has suffered a stroke, is now virtually brain-dead, and will not recover.  Yet, every day she is by his bedside, holding his hand and talking to him.  The nurses tell her that he cannot hear, but she talks to him anyway.  The doctors tell her he will not recover, but she only replies, “I know he’ll pull through, he’s such a strong man.”  This woman is in a unique psychological state – the state of denial.  She can hardly believe what has happened.  Not long ago she was in the yard with her darling, enjoying one of their favorite activities.  The day before, they were at a friend’s home for a get-together.  He seemed the picture of happiness and health.  He didn’t even seem that sick when she brought him to the hospital.  Now – in a blink of an eye – they’re telling her he’s gone.  This is far more emotional pain than she can bear just yet.  She’s not ready to accept that her partner of 40 years won’t be coming home with her.  She’s not quite ready to face a life without him.  So, her unconscious mind has provided her with an effective (albeit most likely temporary) defense against the pain.  Eventually, as she becomes better able to accept the distressing reality, her denial will break down. When it does, the pain it served to contain will gush forth and she will grieve.

Now it’s crucial to remember what it really looks like when true denial breaks down, especially when people of otherwise decent character have done something (especially to someone else they purportedly love) so reprehensible that they can’t bear the pain of acknowledging it for a time.  When they do acknowledge it, however, what you should see is a person racked with the pain, grief, and sadness that they were once unconsciously defending against.   You should see genuine remorse and contrition about what they now realize they have done.  And they should be filled with a desperate desire to make amends (not just idle talk but a real, genuine motivation to take action) and do right by the person they hurt, work hard to merit forgiveness, and demonstrate a commitment never to behave in a similar manner again.

Recently I was called into consultation on a case where a serial cheater was in “relationship repair” therapy for over 18 months, and by the therapist’s account, was only recently,  and just barely, “coming out of denial.”  This philanderer had made the claim that he “turned to someone else in a time of weakness” because his wife had become “emotionally cold and distant.”  And he’d claimed that he had “blocked out” the tremendous guilt he felt and was also truly “unaware” of the damage he was doing to his marriage (even though he had to concoct literally hundreds of elaborate stories to explain suspicious circumstances over the years, knowing full well the impact that would be felt if his affairs came to light).  The therapist noted that she’d encountered similar circumstances “numerous times” in her career and thought his explanations plausible.  When I asked her how that would square with the fact that he first cheated only 4 weeks into his marriage (which both parties admit was full of passion at the time) and his second affair began while he was still involved with his first cheating partner, she had no ready answer.  Nor did she have much to say when I challenged her about why she might accept so many explanations at face value (which is okay when someone is not character disturbed) without first screening for whether the person she was dealing with was of impaired character, which would dramatically increase the likelihood that all the “plausible” explanations might really be nothing more than crafty lies and attempts at positive impression management and manipulation.  But most importantly, she was at a total loss for words when we discussed the nature of denial and what you should witness when an otherwise decent person who’s done something horrible and out of character comes to their senses and denial breaks down.   For this was a man, who instead of displaying anguish over what he had done and an eagerness to make amends was constantly berating his wife (in front of the therapist) with comments like:  “Why can’t you just let go of this?” and “What do you want from me?; I’ve already said I was sorry a thousand times!; and, “You’re making starting over impossible.”  And although she was blind to the fact, the therapist had become a co-conspirator in the vilification and continued victimization of the aggrieved party.  The proof of that was this man’s use of 18 months of therapy not to “overcome denial” or take on the hard challenge of real change but to covertly jockey the family finances to his favor in advance of a possible quick exit and continue his most recent affair in a more stealth manner while appearing to be concerned about saving his marriage.

As I have said before, traditional frameworks can be not only ineffective but also frighteningly enabling sometimes when it comes to understanding and dealing with character dysfunction.  That’s because the perspectives themselves often cause the true nature of circumstances to be misinterpreted.   In the coming weeks, I’ll have more to say on such topics as what real guilt and contrition look like, what a sincere desire to change (as opposed to empty promises to appease) looks like, and several other issues that might assist a reader who’s sought help for their relationship problems to better assess the benefit they might be deriving from the process.

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11 thoughts on “Traditional Therapy Biases and “Denial”

  1. Oh my! I’m so glad you posted this! I had that EXACT experience of a counselor having already been manipulated. A former friend had been stalking me and finally out of the blue one day decided she was going to “harass me until I left the school” and “destroy my reputation and destroy me financially” and that she was “completely justified in doing what she was doing and her conscience was clean”. She planned to manipulate a close friend of mine into betraying me in order get to what she wanted. I went to see a therapist, who just happened to know this woman, and refused to listen to anything I was saying b/c she had already been to him, justifying her behavior as an act of hero-ism b/c my friend had betrayed me.

    THe unbelievable stress this woman put me through caused me lose all of my hair last year and countless hours of lost sleep trying to figure out what on God’s green earth I had done to invoke such vial behavior and how to deal with it. NO ONE has been able to help and her husband is absolutely convinced that I was the one doing to her what she had done to me. SHe had it all worked out that no matter who I went to for help, including the police, she would justify her behavior as it was all just a joke or she’s teaching my former friend a lesson or whatever suited her fancy at the moment.

    I have no doubt this woman is capable of getting away with murder and it really is such a relief to have been able to read your books and KNOW that its not me who’s crazy and people like this DO exist!! Whiplash barely begins to describe the experience!

    1. Another great book I’ve gotten a look at and I recommend others to read is Bully in Sight by Tim Field. I hope it helps you in the kind of situation you’ve described.

      Another great one I believe you’d find extremely valuable is 33 strategies of War by Robert Greene. Of course the objective isn’t to be sneaky back, but to see how to protect yourself and cover your assets, hopefully also taking the steam out of her engine.

      Aside from book recommendations, afraid I’m not able to help much. Gathering evidence is hard, but is necessary.

      1. Thank you for those recommendations and I’ll check into them. I’m completely dumbfounded by what and how much she’s gotten away with by playing the victim and convincing people of her lies.
        P.S. Spelling error above. I meant vile not vial; brain freeze.:-)

        1. I didn’t care for 33 Strategies of War as its purpose is to make a victim out of your target and that’s exactly what I’m trying to avoid. I have no contact with this person in any way shape or form b/c that just gives the message that she can continue to play her games with no regard for the damage she causes. This is someone who will go out of her way to to be sneaky including changing her license plates and bumper stickers to keep from being identified. True psychopath.

          1. I disagree about the purpose of Greene’s book. However, I definitely agree that it’s best to avoid someone, who’s just so hard-wired to play such underhanded games. No one wants to fall victim to such.

  2. My Ah-Ha Moment was … When my x-husband & I were in a therapy session…My X lied his head head off, and the therapist believed him (above me). On the way home, I asked my X why he lied. He said…”The therapist wouldn’t have liked me if I told the truth”.
    That was it!

    1. I need to add, I forgot what the incidents were, that he lied about, there were so many, and they were unconscionable. So the therapist, is actually the one in denial . . . because he chose to believe that a person would never do these unconscionable things. i.e., he “denied” that a good looking, sweet talking, man would ever behave in such an EVIL way.

    2. Refreshing honesty! My X would have continued to play games with some elaborate crazy-making rationalization, and more lies.

  3. I was to family councilwoman with my wife for our regular quarrels.I found out that councilwoman was judging me ,making remarks like I dont know how to love.In the middle of course she diagnosed that my wife have not enough involvement with me after marriage as the root/solution of the problem,but later My wifes parents took aggressive stand against that ,they met without my presence . councilwoman also changed her stand and started to find fault with me .I had asked what is the procedure of counselling how we are going to get solution ,she gave vague answers like we dont have particular procedures . I gathered during the procedure that she had her biases, she was not actually finding truth and remedy but trying to make buy me a solution that way wanted to do her work of counselling since my wife was very aggressive in front of her.Wife was difficult to buy the solution .Later after reading a book in sheeps clothing I identified that she lies,give vague answers to direct questions,Make covert intimidation. I dont go to her now.such is my experience of councilwoman herself being covert aggressive personality.

    1. Really good professionals will tell you straight out that Unfortunately the theraputic professions contain far too many unqualified and incompetent practitioners.

      And there is practically no way to weed out these poeple.

  4. my experience in couple counselling with my husband is one I’ve thankfully got out of. It was horrible.

    I did a lot of checking beforehand on how long she’d been in practice, where she’d trained etc and told her what our issues were. So I thought she’d be on the ball and able to spot manipulation etc. I was wrong.

    I feel such relief not to have to go there any more.

    the counsellor assumed we were both honest and encouraged us to express our feelings to each other.

    We did a listening exercise. We were to take it in turns to listen to each other without interrupting for 5 mins. Then we had to reflect back what we had heard and what we thought the other was feeling. This was in the therapist’s room with her still there and listening in.

    I had to listen to my husband telling me he felt betrayed by me, that I had led him up the garden path because I hadn’t told him plainly enough that I wasn’t happy with … (a certain aspect of our marriage). I had no opportunity for ‘come back’ about these statements, merely to mirror them and say what he seemed to be feeling.

    I realise now that my husband blatantly used the situation to abuse me and the counsellor did not spot it. The next week i said how I felt about it and she still didn’t cotton on or follow up what I was saying. She simply wanted us to open up more to each other so she could help us deal with our ‘unknown’ areas.

    so I said I didn’t feel safe enough to open up any more in front of my husband and I wouldn’t come any more.

    When I had used phrases like “I feel like I’ve been abused” she said she was worried about the effect that had had on my husband’s self esteem! No effort to beleive it was true or deal with my woundedness. Whenever I said things like “I don’t feel safe with him”, it was all “what inside you causes you to feel … ”

    I ended up so mad, I expect she thought I was the problem!

    She certainly took my husband’s emotional shows of tears and his feelings he expressed on face value. But for some reason not mine. Why not?! I always felt like I was defending myself there. Like I wasn’t being believed.

    But I’ve ended that now and feel so relieved! This site and Dr Simon’s books have given me more help than anything else.

    thanks Dr Simon

    Rose

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