Helping people who deny their faults
Jane was at her wit’s end as she listened yet again to her husband scolding their son about his less than desirable work habits. The squabbles between the two males in her life were frequent and seemed to be escalating in intensity.
Waiting for the right moment, she spoke diplomatically, “John, I’m concerned about the harshness of your exchanges with Jerome. You actually have a valid message to convey, but when you yell and insult, it creates more problems than it solves. Would you be willing to tone it down and model a more constructive way?”
Lips pursed, John shot back, “I’m not the problem here! That kid has an attitude, and someone needs to teach him that he can’t get away with chronic irresponsibility.”
“I understand the point you’re making about Jerome’s attitude,” Jane replied, “and I’m committed to working with you in that regard. It’s your communication style I’m trying to address. No matter how correct your ideas are, he won’t listen as long as you are belittling.”
“I’m not belittling him. You need to get off my back and show me some support! I’m tired of being made out as the bad guy!” With that, he huffed off into another room, slamming the door behind him as Jane sat silent, nursing a very familiar sinking feeling in her gut.
What was going on with John? Why was it so difficult to hear his wife’s concerns? Clearly he was so emotionally rattled that self-protection had overtaken his persona, and denial was his way of making himself seem less exposed. He felt so threatened by his wife’s attempted guidance that he could not pause to consider her common sense. Even if she had been wrong in what she was saying, how hard would it have been for him to simply reply, “I’ll certainly consider what you’re telling me”?
The number one trait hindering personal improvement is denial. Simply put, no one can grow or mature without first acknowledging the need. Those in denial guarantee that their dark side wins and relationships falter.
People in frequent denial show themselves to be driven by fear. They fear looking foolish. They fear being controlled. They fear losing. They fear being dismissed. But the crazy thing about denial is that when it is in full force, those very fears become true. They look foolish, they are under the control of others, they lose, and they are readily dismissed … every time.
Do you know people who use denial? Or more importantly, do you ever go into denial? Admit it. We each hate being exposed as inadequate, and none of us is fond of eating humble pie. So as a matter of self-protection it’s easier to say the problem doesn’t exist, then we cleverly flip the focus back onto the confronter, putting that person into a backpedaling mode.
Let’s begin breaking down this defense mechanism with a major acknowledgment: denial is a colossal waste of emotional and communicational energy. It thrusts the relationship into an adversarial mode that serves no healthy function. Invalidating another’s perceptions removes the possibility of learning anything new or challenging.
When I counsel individuals using denial, there are several themes I emphasize:
- Listening is an incredibly rewarding exercise. A person has to train his mind to actually hear the essence of the other’s message. But when he does, he affirms that person as he also opens the possibility of learning. The counselee may be quite surprised to learn how his influence increases when he proactively chooses to hear with no rebuttal. You can also point out that listening is prudent and the Bible says that those who don’t listen before responding are unwise (Prov. 18:2, 13).
- Absorbing unflattering feedback requires emotional maturity. Though it may seem counterintuitive to the counselee, a person illustrates inner weakness as he insists upon appearing strong, but he displays inner strength as he shows a willingness to examine his weaknesses (2 Cor. 12:9–10).
- All individuals have blind spots relative to their personalities. Hearing separate perceptions increases the potential for diminishing those blind spots. In 1 John 1:8 the Bible warns people who say they have no sin: “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” And God encourages us to be diligent in examining ourselves for areas (blind spots) in our lives we need to confess and repent of (Matt. 7:5; 1 Cor. 11:28; 2 Cor. 13:5).
- Removing denial diminishes the propensity toward aggressive anger. This kind of anger is built upon the need to build one’s status by tearing down the other’s legitimacy (Eph. 4:29, 31–32; 1 Pet. 2:1–2).
- No one ever completes the personal growth plan.
Humility leads each of us to conclude that just when we think we have life figured out, something happens to remind us of our fallibility. Encourage the counselee that the Bible says we all make mistakes; no one is without fault (Prov. 20:9; Rom. 3:23; James 3:2), yet God still loves us, and that is why He sent Jesus.
- The best relationships practice mutual accountability.
As we lovingly discuss needs, interpretations, and preferences with each other, we form bonds of unity and helpfulness (1 Thess. 5:11; 1 Pet. 3:8).
When you drop denial in favor of careful listening, the worst that could happen is that the information given may not prove helpful. Okay, that’s not so awful. The best that can happen is that we mature and become more capable as loving companions. Who knows, you may even become bold enough to ask a confronter, “Is there anything else you’d like me to consider?”