Denial as a defence mechanism destroys
The ninth commandment in the Bible calls us not to testify falsely against someone. What if that someone is ourselves? At some point in time, we have all denied or downplayed some stressful emotions and thoughts to avoid drawing attention to ourselves. In other words, we testified falsely against ourselves. Before we hastily brush off this topic of denial, it is important to ask ourselves, “Are we in denial?” People in denial will deny their denial.
Exodus 20:16 NLT “You must not testify falsely against your neighbor.
Denial may sometimes be helpful to maintain peaceful relationships in the short term. In the long run, denial is self-destructive if it is done habitually. It blinds us to what we truly need or want.
Healthy denial and unhealthy denial
There are healthy and unhealthy forms of denial.
Emotional self-control and god-fearing humility are healthy forms of self-denial when we initially hold in our anxious emotions and thoughts out of consideration for others, but later surrender them all up to God.
Here is how it looks like (1 Peter 5:6-10).
- Humble ourselves under the mighty hand of God (1 Peter 5:6) – Submit to God and acknowledge to ourselves that we do not have the ability to save or change anyone and bring about the best outcomes, only He does.
- God will exalt us at the proper time (1 Peter 5:6) – Know that people may crush our spirits but God will lift us up when the time is right.
- Cast our anxieties on God (1 Peter 5:7) – Honestly confess and pour out all our anxious feelings and thoughts to God.
- God cares for us (1 Peter 5:7) – Know God will tenderly care for us and will not condemn or reject us.
- Be sober-minded and alert (1 Peter 5:8) – Stay alert to and recognise temptations from Satan, the father of lies, to lie to ourselves about how we truly feel or what we truly want.
- Resist Satan (1 Peter 5:9) – Rebuke and silence Satan in Jesus’ name.
- Firm in our faith (1 Peter 5:9) – Do not allow our circumstances to cause us to become shaky in our faith and leave God.
- Know that others experience the same sufferings (1 Peter 5:9) – Do not fall for the lie that no one understands our suffering. We are not alone in our suffering. We can all seek comfort from Jesus.
- The God of grace will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish us (1 Peter 5:10) – Leave it to the Holy Spirit to refresh us and heal us of our anxieties.
1 Peter 5:6-10 ESV Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world. And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.
Denial becomes unhealthy when we use it as a self-reliant coping mechanism. We simply close our hearts to reality and act as if painful events, thoughts or emotions did not really exist or matter. In short, we deceive ourselves. The Bible warns us to avoid such foolishness.
Proverbs 14:8 NIV The wisdom of the prudent is to give thought to their ways, but the folly of fools is deception.
Children often use this “foolish” form of denial because they are ill-equipped to deal with the harsh realities of life and do not know how to open their hearts to Jesus. Later in adulthood, such denial can result in chronic emotional suppression and self-denial and at its extreme, severe depression and even self-hatred. Our self-esteem saps away and we don’t know who we are or what we love doing anymore.
We find that we experience a very limited range of emotions. Our existence feels uninspired, limited, and banal because we have denied the voice of truth in our hearts for so long.
Examples of unhealthy denial
Ungodly denial chooses to placate our true underlying emotions with another “storyline”. It can reduce our anxieties and emotional discomfort, as we overcome the impact of something traumatic or deeply hurtful in the moment but it is only a temporary band-aid. The true story remains unresolved.
We deny, downplay or disassociate ourselves from:
- An event
- Our feelings (usually shame, fear, or unworthiness)
- Our needs (often dismissing emotionally legitimate needs that are socially inconvenient)
- Our responsibility
- Our abuser’s guilt
- People who remind us of unpleasant emotions
The problem is that by doing so, we also cripple our ability to feel God’s love, peace, joy, and hope, and trap ourselves in an emotional stalemate.
Here are some ways denial may play out.
Example: We choose to avoid all interactions with authority figures rather than confront the anxiety we still feel as a result of the trauma of living with a strict disciplinarian when we were little.
Example: We choose to believe that the cruel bullying we endured from our classmates were just pranks. We may even joke and laugh about the incidences.
Example: We choose to believe that our mother, whom we are closer to, was the sole victim of an unfair divorce, rather than accept that both parents were at fault. We reframe our view according to our bias.
Example: We choose to move on to a new romantic relationship or a new environment to placate the unease we feel, rather than get to the real root of our restlessness.
Example: We choose to believe that the sacrifices we make are not valid when compared to others.
Example: We choose to believe that our father beat us frequently because he meant well, rather than admit to ourselves that we were helpless victims of an abusive upbringing.
|Choosing to forget||
Example: We believe the false idea, “out of sight, out of mind”, and choose not to remember painful episodes in our lives, in the hope that they will go away on their own. They won’t go away until we confess our pain to our Saviour and ask Him to heal our broken hearts and crushed spirits.
Example: We try to ignore all the stress from being unfairly dismissed and convince ourselves that we are fine.
|Cloaking with spirituality||
Example: Enduring hardship without complaint to demonstrate we have admirable qualities (based on our own strength), rather than admit we are weak and cry out to God for help so that other people see that He is the One who rescues and worthy of praise.
Example: We choose to believe that the online dating scam we fell for is not a fraud.
|Shirking responsibility, shifting blame||
Example: We choose to believe that all our relationships fail because other people have problems, rather than admit that we have contributed to the failures.
|Hiding behind medical diagnosis||
Example: We choose to defend our emotional outbursts with labels that human doctors or psychiatrists use to categorise us, rather than go to the Creator for true healing.
The roots of unhealthy denial
The majority of denial starts in childhood where we may have missed out on the emotional nurturing and tutoring needed to take stock of our anxieties and respond without fear.
The circumstances under which denial develop are extremely varied. Mostly, it is used as a way to cope with feeling ashamed, fearful, or insignificant. A few examples include:
- We experienced events that were terrifying or confusing.
- We were neglected by our guardians.
- We were reprimanded for displaying negative emotions.
- We were rejected for being sensitive and tenderhearted.
- We were punished based on inconsistent standards.
- We grew up with demanding performance standards.
Such anxious experiences can be even harder for those children who are more attuned to other people’s emotions and do not know how to cope with the onslaught of different feelings that may not be entirely their own. They can even blame themselves for causing such emotions. Feeling crushed over the weight of their emotions, they prefer to escape it all through denial.
When we choose to look the other way with regards to how we feel, we do ourselves a grave disservice.
Thankfully, God understands why we do the things we do and does not condemn us. He comes to save our burdened hearts and bring us back to fullness.
John 10:10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.
Healing and being set free from bondage to denial
Coming out of denial can be terrifying because we feel as if our emotional safety net is being removed from under our feet. We don’t know what to expect and what we may uncover. One reason why we have resorted to denial in the first place is that the anxiety inside us has been too much to bear on our own.
Now that we have Jesus in our lives, we need to give up this ungodly pattern. God calls us into His arms and gently tells us to cast our anxieties and pains to Him, and not to hold it all in anymore. The more we confess our internal unseen sufferings, the more God will shower us with His comfort through Jesus. Also, see The importance of emotional healing.
1 Peter 5:7 NIV Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.
2 Corinthians 1:3-5 ESV Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.
Thank God that Jesus lived on earth as a human being with all the same frailties and temptations as us. Therefore, our loving Saviour understands exactly how we feel and knows exactly how to comfort us. He will show us the way to an abundant life! Jesus willingly bears our burdens when we invite Him to.
Psalm 68:19 NIV Praise be to the Lord, to God our Savior, who daily bears our burdens.
Every person’s journey out of denial and back into truth and self-acceptance is different. It would not be possible to describe how each journey should look like, but here is some encouragement.
First, it is important to acknowledge that our safety net has actually become a dark prison of self-denial. We have been trapped in a form of self-inflicted blindness.
Praise God that He who created the heavens and gave us breath will give us sight again and gently bring us out of our emotional dungeons. This is a journey God takes at our pace because He is a kind tenderhearted Father who knows that we are still emotional infants in some ways. We simply need to take one baby step at a time with Him. For example, please refer to this testimony: Jesus reveals legal advisor’s hidden self-rejection
Isaiah 42:5-7 Thus says God, the LORD, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people on it and spirit to those who walk in it: “I am the LORD; I have called you in righteousness; I will take you by the hand and keep you; I will give you as a covenant for the people, a light for the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.
God asks us to submit our entire bodies as living sacrifices, so that He can make every part of us whole again. That includes offering up our hearts, with all our bias, fears, pain, and anxieties, to Him for renewal. This may seem daunting at first but it will actually turn out to be the most freeing and life-giving act we may do for ourselves.
Romans 12:1-2 I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
Turning to God for healing requires a good amount of humility, because we first need to admit that we are not wise enough to save ourselves. Only God has that power to give us a second lease of life. He will tenderly show us our buried anxieties so that we can confess them to Him and step out of our dark prisons of hidden pain into His Light. He will not condemn us. He simply asks us not to fall back into the same destructive pattern of denial.
1 Corinthians 3:18 ESV Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise.
Psalm 139:23-24 Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!
John 8:11-12 11 … And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”]] Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”
Will we open the doors of our hearts to Jesus? We have probably known that He has been standing at the door and knocking for years but simply chosen to deny it. It’s time to open that door.
Revelation 3:20 ESV Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.
“Growing up, I did not believe one’s feeling is important. What I was taught all along was that nobody is really doing what makes them happy and all that matters is the validation of others. So, faking it to be happy, strong, independent and confident gives the best chance of being appreciated and given more opportunities, thus, it should be demonstrated at all times.
My true feelings are almost irrelevant, as it reveals weaknesses and is unappreciated (‘烦’ in Chinese). I learned at a very young age to detach myself from my true feelings and my de facto responses to the question, “How do you feel?” is “I don’t know,” and “it doesn’t matter”.
While emotional detachment and denial was uncomfortable, it never really quite troubled me as it has been an ingrained pattern in my family.
This has, on the other hand, become an issue when I got engaged and later married to my husband – who is honestly the best gift God has given me (after Jesus). During the conflicts that we have as we ease into our new life together, I often find myself closing up and unable to express how I feel to my husband. This has become a pain point between us and I felt led by God to seek the Holy Spirit’s counsel through prayer with other believers.
Through my prayer sessions, I realised some of the patterns I’ve carried from my previous generations. My parents got divorced when I was small and I don’t have much recollection of my dad at all. After my dad left, my mum became very insecure and had quite a negative outlook on life. My mother’s view of the world is that most people don’t get to choose what they want so we should live with only what we have. Doing what we want is not important at all.
While I do have preferences, I learnt from a very young age to mute them, as they never mattered in my mum’s eyes. I learnt to grudgingly do what I was told in order to appease my mum so as to stop the nagging and criticism.
The Holy Spirit revealed to me that the root of the negative feelings I had, was that I was taught to prioritise other people’s feelings and de-prioritise my own. This goes in conflict with my extraverted and feeling personality and I feel trapped, restricted, and controlled.
Growing up, I tried very hard to look happy and strong by suppressing my feelings, but secretly, I was not happy and my happy exterior was built on a vacuum. I did not feel understood and my preferences did not matter.
The Holy Spirit has guided me that it is okay to have feelings and emotions. Both feelings and emotions are powerful creations from God and having feelings isn’t a sin and they certainly should not be impeded. While my feelings aren’t understood and appreciated by all – God understands and is always willing to listen. All I needed to do is to share with Him as He is always there.”
Also see testimony: Jesus shows lawyer how to use her spiritual gift
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