The Queen of Denial

Much psychotherapy is based on the whack-a-mole principle: You must address the root causes of your problem—If you just tamp it down, the problem will pop up elsewhere. Indeed, such psychotherapy has helped many people improve their lives or at least gain insight.

But my wife, Barbara Nemko, prefers tamping. Not only doesn’t she try to get to the root cause of her issues, she often tries to deny a problem even exists. Indeed, she calls herself, “The Queen of Denial.”

For example, despite being pretty, Barbara is self-conscious about her looks. But rather than trying to understand its root cause, as soon as she’s aware of feeling self-conscious, she makes herself redirect to something positive, for example, freshening her makeup. Yes, she spends above-average time trying to look good but believes, “I get more comfort from that than if I focused on my insecurity or its causes.”

Another example. Like most people, when Barbara learns that a friend has a serious diseases, she’s reminded of her own mortality. But she doesn’t let that reminder penetrate. Instead, she forces herself to do or think about something constructive. She likes a phrase from Neil Simon’s play, Brighton Beach Memoirs, “I can’t deal with boats that haven’t landed yet.”

I myself, for decades, had an outsized fear of death and dying. To cope, I tried therapies, read articles and books, and wrote in a journal. Nothing worked. Indeed, the more I focused on that fear, the worse it became. That’s because the issue became ever more top-of-mind. Indeed, a study published in June in Nature suggests that the more you think about something, the stronger the neural connections associated with it.

Finally, tired of hearing me catastrophize bodily sensations, Barbara encouraged—okay urged—me to try her approach: suppression. She would say, “Martin, the first second you start to worry about your health, say ‘Stop’ to yourself and redirect your attention to something productive.” Initially, I couldn’t often enough make myself do it but over a six-month period, I found myself ever more able to and, to my surprise and relief, my fear of death and dying so diminished that now it rarely affects my peace of mind.

Lest I overstate the power of suppression and denial, a couple of other factors helped reduce my fear. I distilled my reading on death and dying into a reassuring couple of sentences: “You won’t be aware of being dead just as you weren’t aware before you were born. And regarding pain, if it gets too bad, you usually can find a way to off yourself.”

Also helpful was a rule of thumb my physician gave me: “Unless a pain of unknown origin is severe, give it a week or two before seeing me. Almost all such pains go away before then or can, without harm, wait.” That was a decade ago. Since then, his rule of thumb has worked for me every time.

Of course, just because suppression/denial works for Barbara and me doesn’t mean it will work for you, let alone for all issues, but this post attempts to offer a bit of counterbalance to the common recommendation that it’s important to delve into your problem’s roots. Certainly, the Queen of Denial thinks not.



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