by Jennifer Newton Martin, LPC
Denial, in Psychology, is an unconscious process by which an individual puts out of mind unpleasant beliefs, thoughts, desires, etc. in order to avoid uncomfortable feelings. Denial is something most people, even outside of the world of Psychology and Counseling, are familiar with. It is pretty common to hear one person respond to another with something along the lines of, “right, you are clearly in denial”, when the listener perceives some level of dishonesty. In stark contrast to the common use of the word denial, is the infrequent use of its opposite counterpart: ownership. Typically, the opposite of denial would be acceptance, but acceptance seems a little passive to me. I envision somebody putting their hands on their hips and sarcastically whispering, “I accept that”. Ownership, however, I picture as active and perhaps even proud. Often when we hear someone boasting about owning something, there is a certain level of pride and accomplishment underneath what they are saying. They are excited to share, and usually they have worked hard in order to possess whatever it is they are sharing about. Ownership is all about awareness and responsibility for ourselves, our whole selves: the parts we are uncomfortable with, the vulnerable parts, the maddening habitual parts, the pain we wish to leave behind, the grief we don’t want to feel, the behaviors that bury us in shame. The only clear path out of denial is complete and utter ownership for the entirety of who we are. After all, we are complete human beings – not just our desirable pieces and parts or the parts we are comfortable showing to others.
Denial and Defensiveness
Leading researchers of relationships at the Gottman Institute have been studying what makes or breaks relationships for 40 years and have literally made a science out of predicting the health (or destruction) of relationships. The Gottman Institute has identified and named what they consider the four deadly horsemen of the apocalypse, or the most common destroyers of relationships: defensiveness, stonewalling, contempt, and criticism. All four of these attitudes/behaviors are detrimental to relationships, but defensiveness is the behavior that really comes to mind when I think of how people really express denial. Defensiveness is the behavioral equivalent of a toddler sticking their fingers in their ears and yelling, “I can’t hear you”. We have all been guilty of this at some point in our lives, but let’s hope that at some point we have outgrown believing that if we don’t hear what another person is saying the outcome of what is expected of us is going to change. As we all know, this response isn’t likely to solve any problem or get us what we desire in any way. There comes a time when we have to take our fingers out of our ears and practice really hearing those people in our lives who we wish to keep there.
Reconsidering our “Normal”
If we are to grow as individuals, and if we are to have satisfying and meaningful relationships, we must first be able to look at ourselves through another’s eyes. We all have blind spots when it comes to ourselves. After all, our personalities were born out of biology, genetics, nature, and nurture, and we are complex entities with various conscious and unconscious beliefs and understandings about ourselves, others, and the world. Because we only know our own experiences and our own selves, it can be difficult to realize that what we often experience as “normal” may not seem “normal” to others at all. This is why we need to hear from others. As a disclaimer, I want to make very, very clear that what I am not saying is for you to let people whom you do not have reason to trust, or you have very good reason not to trust, define your realty. I have been in relationships with various narcissistic people who have tried with everything in their might to convince me that I was actually quite different than I am, always in an attempt to deflect ownership of a problem. As discussed in the previous post, narcissists are individuals who simply cannot allow themselves to entertain the idea of imperfection and cannot experience shame. As a result of their need to get rid of whatever is threatening their perfect self-image, they will say anything to make you the guilty party. This type of individual is not someone to practice ownership with, as it will likely be used against you.
Let me give an example of something that may seem normal to one person and yet very abnormal to another. I grew up in a home where there was a lot of emotional chaos and very little healthy communication. There was virtually no discussion of painful topics and pretty much every sore subject became part of the floor boards from living under the rug for so long. Our family simply did not talk about our pain, and trust and intimacy were not values that we held. In fact, as an adult, my father several times has happily relayed a story to me about how when my brother was young he stood him up on a tree stump and told him to jump into his arms. With a laugh, and a glint of pride in his eyes, he then told me that when my brother jumped, my father moved out of the way so that my brother fell to the ground. My father then informed my brother that he should never trust anyone and the sooner that he learned that the better. Sadly, my father didn’t need to tell me that story, a story he later corrected as fictitious, because the realty is that by the time I was old enough to leave my family home I had already internalized the message that people couldn’t be trusted and that I had to take care of myself. Unfortunately, that understanding had become a “normal” part of my identity.
There are many people who might read this story and think, “what a terrible father!” To them, teaching your children not to trust others is a sick and twisted mind game, clearly coming from a heartless and cold man. Other people might read the same story and have no emotional reaction what-so-ever, thinking, “yep, that sounds just like my family.” It is immediately evident that depending whether that sort of story was a “normal” scenario in your family, or whether you grow up in an extremely warm, empathetic, and loving family that encouraged trust and vulnerability, is going to dictate how you feel when reading it. How we feel about things, or at least how we consciously feel about things, is often a result of what we perceive as “normal”. To us, we are normal, and others are odd, no matter how odd others perceive us to be. This is why we need to be able to hear outside perspectives, we need to be open to hearing and considering the feedback we receive from people we trust. From there, we can decide whether to own the part of ourself that the other person is speaking to, or, if we are simply being manipulated by another in order for them to get something from us, we can choose to firmly voice our truth and disagree.
Under-Owning vs. Over-Owning
We have already talked briefly about a narcissist‘s difficulty with taking ownership for their own behavior, feelings, attitudes, etc. Narcissists are much more likely to project everything that you say back onto you, as they simply cannot own imperfection. However, there is an opposite end to the ownership spectrum, as well, and I see it much more commonly in individuals I counsel. At the other end of the spectrum are individuals who own everything. These are sensitive individuals who, unlike the narcissist who cannot empathize with others, empathize with everyone. These individuals feel deeply, and therefore they deeply relate to the pain of others. They also deeply long for connection with others and believe in the power of relationship, and therefore will go to just about any extreme to save the relationship, even if this means owning things that they don’t see as true about themselves at all.
These individuals likely came from childhood homes where their
“These are sensitive individuals who, unlike the narcissist who cannot empathize with others, empathize with everyone. These individuals feel deeply, and therefore they deeply relate to the pain of others. They also deeply long for connection with others and will go to just about any extreme to save the relationship, even if this means owning things that they don’t see as true about themselves at all.”
needs were secondary to others or completely disregarded altogether. Because nobody taught them to care for themselves, comforted them, or helped them to identify their feelings or needs, they became overly responsible caregivers to others, highly attuned to what other people want and need. Their identity and sense of purpose became about meeting other people’s needs and connecting to others but having no needs of their own. By over-owning and taking too much responsibility for other people’s feelings, needs, or behavior, these individuals gained some semblance of control but to the long-term detriment of themselves.
When poor boundaries exist in a home and a child is involved in conversations or situations way beyond their maturity level, the child may take on ownership of the adult’s problems or feelings. If the discomfort they felt at the time was not acknowledged or was minimized or dismissed, then they likely received the message that they were expected to be mature and tough and compliant. Because this was their experience, these individuals likely developed into responsible, caring, deferential individuals, who perhaps struggle to even feel their own feelings and needs, much less disclose them to others. Additionally, because this was the “normal” way to be, it stands to reason that without significant interruption, many of these individual’s adult relationships turn out to be exact re-enactments of their early relationships. People from the outside may look at their significant relationships and see them as one-sided or even abusive, whereas the individual in the relationship may not see the problem at all. If they haven’t known anything different, then they certainly aren’t aware they are missing anything. If a person has been trained their whole life to be in this sort of relationship, then getting their needs met by serving the other person, enduring neglect or even abuse, or contorting themselves into whatever version the other party is asking for, is all just par-for-the-course, all just “normal” relationship stuff and stuff they are quite good at.
Self-Awareness and Grace Equal Growth
Personal growth requires ownership and ownership requires self-awareness. Sometimes, self-awareness comes from listening to the people around us whom we trust. Sometimes self-awareness comes from evaluating ourselves in light of new information, such as reading an article like this. If you consider yourself a spiritual person, self-awareness may come about as you seek to grow spiritually and you practice discernment in your life. The key is to practice being someone who is curious and non-judgmental. We are who we are. Unfortunately, we can’t go back and relive our childhoods. We don’t get to pick our family and the experiences we have already had. We do, however, get to choose what we do with our stories and our experiences moving forward. We can choose to do the work needed to grieve the hard parts of our stories, to rejoice over the strengths and positive outcomes of our difficult experiences, and to do the work needed to own all of the parts of ourselves: the good, the bad, and the ugly. We can give our child-selves grace, as well as our adult-selves, and we can show grace to others as we help them explore how their past might have impacted how they are in relationship with us. Most importantly, we can practice ownership over ourselves and encourage others to do the same. In this way we respect ourselves and we respect those around us.
Steps for Change
If you are someone who feels that your defensiveness to criticism keeps you from being able to hear those in your life, perhaps practicing ownership is the work that you need to do. Seek to understand the feelings that come up for you when you feel criticized. Consider how your family of origin handled mistakes or risk-taking. Did you feel free to explore and make mistakes or did you feel that you had to focus on performing perfectly? If grace for mistakes wasn’t evident in your childhood then it stands to reason that the thought of making mistakes could bring about anxiety or shame for you. See if you can grow your tolerance for sitting with those negative feelings rather than responding with anger and defensiveness. Encourage yourself to just listen to others and be very intentional about not blaming others. Practice tangible coping skills, such as those found in my blog on conquering anxiety, to combat the anxiety that comes up for you when you feel criticized. Talk to those close to you about how their words make you feel while also owning your mistakes or failures.
If you are someone who feels that you over-empathize with others and tend to over-own things in order to make peace, practice listening to complaints without responding initially. Take time to really evaluate your feelings and thoughts, and clearly spell out the things that you are responsible for and not responsible for, before responding. This might take some time and effort if you aren’t used to considering how you feel and what you want. If you feel a compulsion to be compliant or to own things that you don’t believe to be true, spend some time identifying why that is. If you are attempting to avoid feelings of guilt or shame around not putting others first, or prioritizing yourself, consider whether that guilt is legitimate guilt or is strictly coming from messages you received growing up. Practice advocating for yourself in addition to empathizing with others. Try to keep a balance between caring for others and caring for yourself. Remember that although changing the relationship dynamics could cost you relationships with unhealthy individuals, it will also be the thing that helps you to find the kind of mutual relationships that you long for. Although changing yourself to manage someone else’s behavior and keep them in relationship with you might work in the short term, it will never result in a relationship worth having.
Whichever side of the spectrum you fall on, under-owning or over-owning, remember that no growth can occur by failing to practice ownership. Owning who we are, and our part in conflict, does not let the other person off of the hook for their part, but rather models accountability and healthy boundaries. Likewise, owning things that aren’t actually ours robs other people of the opportunity to be accountable and grow and damages our ability to have mutual respect. If we can catch ourselves when we are operating out of our default positions, and be intentional about changing, then we can gain a sense of empowerment and the hope of greater things to come.
Read more about narcissism and caregiving and the give-take spectrum in my previous post Narcissism and Caregiving: Dancing Around the Truth.