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Saturday, May 23, 2015

Psychotherapy Blog: Overcoming Your Denial About Family Problems

As I've written in previous articles, adult children from dysfunctional families usually survive their family chaos by being in denial about the problems in their family and how they were affected (see my article: Dynamics of Adult Children From Dysfunctional Families).

Overcoming Your Denial About Family Problems

What is Denial?
Denial is an unconscious defense mechanism. For people who grew up in a dysfunctional family, denial helped them to survive emotionally by preventing emotional trauma from overwhelming them as children.  But whereas denial helped them to survive as children, it gets in the way of healthy emotional development.

Coming to terms with the dysfunction in a family of origin is emotionally challenging, but not coming to terms with it is even more damaging.

Overcoming Your Denial About Family Problems

The unconscious process of denial keeps disturbing emotions out of awareness.  People who are in denial about the problems in their family of origin and how those problems affected them often use dissociation as a way to keep uncomfortable emotions split off from their conscious awareness.

While denial might ward off uncomfortable feelings, unfortunately, it also affects other areas--not just the emotions that are meant to be kept at bay.

There are degrees of dissociation--from mild to severe.  Even a moderate level of dissociation can dampen overall emotions, including happiness, so that people who use dissociation to remain in denial are often out of touch with their feelings.

It also takes a lot of energy to keep uncomfortable emotions out of awareness so that it can leave a person emotionally drained.

Adult who use denial as a maladaptive form of coping often have problems in their relationships.

Often, these adults are out of touch with issues in their marriage and with their children (see my article:  Unresolved Trauma Can Create Emotional Blind Spots That Affect You and Your Family). And if they're forced to deal with difficult situations, they might become emotionally overwhelmed.  At that point, psychotherapy can be helpful, especially experiential therapy.

Let's take a look at the following vignette, which is a fictional scenario that shows how denial creates problems and how experiential therapy can help (see my article: Experiential Therapy Can Help Achieve Emotional Breakthroughs):

Emily came to therapy because she felt overwhelmed by her problems with her husband and 17 year old son.

Overcoming Your Denial About Family Problems

Her husband, Mark, had been telling her for over a year that he suspected that their son, Tom, was drinking with his friends.

Although, like Mark, Emily smelled the alcohol on Tom's breath, she felt that her husband was making too big a deal out of it.  Her feeling was that Tom was rebelling and if they overreacted to it, Tom would want to act out even more by drinking more.  She felt that Tom would grow out of it.

Emily's attitude toward the situation infuriated Mark and when she wouldn't agree with him that they both should confront Tom about his drinking, he decided to do it on his own.

So, one evening when Tom came home from seeing his friends smelling of alcohol, Mark called him into the living room where he and Emily were sitting and told Mark and told him that he was concerned about his drinking.

As Emily talked about that evening in therapy, I asked her what she was feeling at the time.  I already knew, based on Emily's family history, that her father struggled with alcoholism and her mother and the rest of the family, including Emily, tiptoed around the father's problem.  Even after her father died from alcohol-related causes, no one in the family ever discussed it (see my article: Overcoming Childhood Trauma).

Emily response to my question about how she was feeling at the moment when her husband confronted their son about his drinking drew a blank look, and she told me that she wasn't aware of feeling anything in particular--except possibly being annoyed with her husband for creating the confrontation.

As we focused on what she might have been feeling at that moment, Emily thought back and she remembered her attention drifting out of the room and she felt like she was floating.  She described it as an oddly pleasant feeling that was familiar.

Then, she remembered that her feeling of floating was interrupted abruptly by an argument that broke out between her husband and their son.  They were shouting at each other and then Tom stormed off to his room slamming the door behind him.

Mark was angry that Emily remained passive when he confronted Tom.  He expressed his anger and frustration that she refused to see that Tom was in trouble.  He accused her of colluding with Tom.  Then, he told her that he was sick of trying to get her to see that Tom had a drinking problem, and he was moving out of the house for a while.

Emily remembered feeling emotionally paralyzed as Mark packed his things and drove to a hotel.  Other than shock, she wasn't sure what she felt.

During our second session, Emily was upset and crying because a week after Mark moved out, the police called her to tell her that her son and his friends were arrested for underage drinking during a routine traffic stop.  The driver was also charged with DWI.

This was a shocking wake up call for Emily.  When she called Mark to tell him, he came home immediately so they could face this problem together.

Our work together began with helping Emily to develop basic coping skills and, gradually, to help her to connect with her emotions.

Since Emily was so disconnected from her feelings, we began with basic Somatic Experiencing exercises to help her to connect what she was sensing in her body with her emotions.

Over time, she realized that, for her, tightness in her stomach muscles was anxiety, a sinking feeling in her chest was sadness, and so on.

When Emily was at the point that she could tolerate it emotionally, we used EMDR to help her to process her current family problems and, eventually, her unresolved family of origin problems.  By then, she could see the connection between her family of origin problems that were getting triggered by her current problems.

The work was neither quick nor easy, and Emily had setbacks along the way (see my article: Setbacks Are a Normal Part of Psychotherapy on the Road to Healing).  But by the end of therapy, Emily no longer used denial as her attempt to cope, and her family life improved.

Denial, which is an unconscious defense, can take many forms, including dissociation and emotional numbing.  It often develops in childhood to prevent the child from being emotionally overwhelmed, and continues in adulthood where it creates its own problems.

Experiential therapy, like Somatic Experiencing and EMDR, can be effective in helping clients to develop better coping skills and to overcome current and earlier trauma.

Getting Help in Therapy
Since denial is an unconscious defense mechanism, you might not be aware that you use it as a maladaptive attempt to cope with your problems, but you might have some awareness that you're out of touch with how you feel and how this is affecting you and your relationships.

Rather than struggling on your own, you could benefit form seeking help from a licensed mental health professional who uses experiential therapy.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website:  Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (212) 726-1006 or email me.

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