Friday, 6 August 2010

Preliminary Remarks on Denial

Denial is the failure to acknowledge an unacceptable truth or emotion or to admit it into consciousness, used as a defence mechanism. If you're in denial about something, you know it's true, and you're refusing to admit it to yourself, other people and the relevant authorities, whosoever they may be. Denial is always selfish, and because it is a choice and leads to others becoming confused about how to interpret large chunks of their world correctly, it is always malicious. That malice is often the subject of its own denial: the secrets are held to be harmless or our enforced ignorance was for our own good. Hiding the truth about something that matters to someone else is always bad - though that doesn't mean you should rush into blurting it out any old way and when. You are allowed to hide the truth from your enemies. Your children, your family, your spouse, even your employees, customers, suppliers and stockholders - these are not your (official) enemies. When you hide a truth that is their business from them, you are treating them as if they are (officially) enemies. That is malice and bad faith. The fact that the denier is often themselves the victim of someone or something else does not let them off the hook: the correct way to deal with whatever it is, is to name it, shame it and if need be divorce it, not to fabricate a fairy-tale in which it doesn't exist. Weakness may be a reason, but it is not an excuse.

There are times I think that ordinary people no more listen to the words they hear and use than they do the lyrics of their favourite songs. They hear the sound and the inflections and the subject and that's all they need. They pick up the emotional markers and draw political consequences from that - "manager X thinks that project Y is a good thing, so I shouldn't make rude noises about it to her" - but do not listen to the actual words and draw substantive conclusions - "manager X thinks project Y will help us one jot? hasn't she seen it? I should explain why it sucks".

If you grew up with denial you can't do what normal people do: ignore the lyrics and listen to the song. It isn't that you can't hear the song, it's that you know that a song is just a singer's trick. You can't trust the words, you can't trust the emotional signals around the words, so you trust only the actions. You work backwards from consequences to intentions because you can't trust what anyone says about their motives. You take words at their face value, because that's all you can do, even though you know as a matter of abstract principle that what they said is not what they mean. After a while, you can recognise denial by its very manner of expression. And because you know about the malice behind it, you are upset and insulted, it triggers memories and reactions from way, way back when you were vulnerable and upset. If you grew up around denial, it's hard to handle it when you're an adult.

This is what trips me up time and time again at The Bank. I'm not going to list all the things The Bank's management is in denial about - life is too short and I'll just get upset. And all this has consequences for what I think I'm good and bad at as regards that dreaded phrase "people skills".

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