Trigger-happy healers

In defence of denial, and in praise of projection. 

“Denial helps us to pace our feelings of grief. There is grace in denial. It is nature’s way of letting in only as much as we can handle.”
Elizabeth Kubler-Ross


Denial, as they say, is not a river in Egypt. For many years while I watched my father die slowly from alcoholic liver disease, denial seemed only to point to itself. He had long stopped drinking out of a glass, and habitually placed his bottle of wine behind a table leg on the floor, hidden in plain sight. This scene was suffused with pathos. He only became more and more child-like: utterly dependent and possessed by magical thinking. My dad seemed to be both trying to disguise the obvious and yet encourage discovery.

The latter, I came to understand, was an invitation to intimacy, distorted by shame into collusion. He wanted to be seen, his vulnerability to be acknowledged, but only as part of a secretive pact: me and him against the world. Denial gets a bad rap, as do the other human defensive mechanisms, but we ought to acknowledge its purpose. According to Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, a pioneer in the field of dying with dignity who charted the seven stages of grief, denial arises organically to prevent overwhelm and protect psychic integrity. For grief, we can substitute trauma.

Projection, meanwhile, might allow a safe space to see what hides within us, by locating it externally. The success of equine therapy in treating addiction lies in the perfect mirrors provided by the horses, who show what’s going on beneath the surface. Using their finely tuned instincts, horses detect subtle changes in human emotions and provide immediate ‘feedback’. Said one serviceman returned from Afghanistan. “You can tell horses your awful secrets and they won’t judge.”

The problem, of course, is when that grief is never processed and denial and projection become long-term maladaptations. We can get caught underneath the crest of a giant wave, frozen in time, the water forever threatening to crash over us.

Hello darkness, my old friend

It’s usually assumed with shadow work that what is hidden to ordinary awareness, yet exposed by denial and projection, is something dark and forbidding. But defensive mechanisms, over time, become blunt and indiscriminate. In that shadow can be the right to take space, to be seen, heard and valued – even the right to be here at all. These are not monsters. It is how we compensate that gets ugly.

Of this I am sure: we are all masters in training still doing our healing. That is, healing as coming back to wholeness, as opposed to curing. My dad didn’t need to be cured. In the last year of his life under residential care he was surrounded by nurses, with whom he bonded as an old man seeking the revivifying value of a young woman’s smile; his charm still wedded to the living. He would drink one beer in the afternoon slowly. No more, no less. And became fond of blowing me kisses. This was not a man I had ever met before, but one I had always known.

Triggers let us know what remains unresolved in our unconscious; they flash into awareness with hot-button haste – with an urgency to be integrated. Yet there’s no rush. If we can love what we’ve deemed unloveable, indeed, we become healers for a world lost in denial and projection.

As a child I absorbed my dad’s pathos as if it were my own. My life has been a testament to the seven stages of grief, sometimes out of order and sometimes entirely lacking grace as I became stuck. My ultimate healing, though, is a counter-intuitive move towards breaking down that separation. If healing means returning to true nature, then healing is by definition a collective matter. Because true nature is nobody’s alone but shared.

My dad’s suffering was my suffering; just as my darkness is the darkness of the world, needing to be integrated. This is not a sacrifice, or any kind of martyrdom. This was my very purpose, which I had denied because my small self was at stake. Instead of narrowing healing into a personal cure, shoring up my self-esteem, triggers become a flashpoint to redeem my shadows and my pains – and those of my father, because he lives inside me, and me inside him, and we are forever connected.

Love never dies and true esteem comes from the soul. I believe that when my redemption is yours too, value, belonging and visibility can’t help but follow. All these years later, it was my dad’s secret kisses that sealed the deal.

Photos by Bret Kavanaugh and K. Mitch Hodge on Unsplash

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