For many years I have heard this touted as a battle cry by the ranks of people who have experienced brain injuries. We need more brain injury awareness. Awareness is great, but unless the awareness leads the individual to a place of acceptance, action will be a far cry from awareness. Awareness, merely acknowledges that some thing has occurred, but if nothing changes, it will remain the same. Acceptance gives the individual the ability to realize that things are not going to change or get better unless other steps are taken, thus launching action. Action brings about hope, as solutions are considered instead of focusing on the awareness of what can not be changed. Sure our lives have been changed forever because of a traumatic brain injury, but that does not have to limit our lives or who we become in this life. By accepting what can not be changed we are given the gift to get on with our lives, find ways to use what we have in ways that will work for us to create a good life for ourselves.
Several days ago , I wrote and published an article My Experience Living with a Traumatic Brain Injury in which I shared some of what I have learned through my journey of living with the impact of a traumatic brain injury. In today’s article, I would like to share what I learned about an arch nemesis that kept me stuck for many years. In my experience, I had to get to a place where one degree of pain had to be superseded by another pain for me to get on with my life. I had to address this pain to be able to stop focusing on what I could not change, to be able to change the things that I could to be able to get on with my life. The pain involved no longer continuing to deny the impact that my traumatic brain injury had and was continuing to have on my life and well-being. In my pain, I realized that I no longer could buy into other what other people sought to deny / maintain — how my life was impacted — for whatever reason.
Denial was a huge barrier that I needed to overcome in order to move from a place of awareness to a place of acceptance so that I could get into action to be able to create a life for myself. Below is a synopsis of what I learned through my process that helped me to recognize, confront and overcome both my and others denial.
Denial is a defense mechanism that protects the individual from having to face or confront the shock of a loss. Denial shields the individuals from having to face the pain related to the loss. Denial can act like a warm blanket. Denial can also be used as a door to shut out, that which is just too painful to address. Denial can also be used to ignore and avoid what we do not want to confront. Denial can be used to erect a dam to hold back unwanted memories and emotional pain. Denial can be used to suppress body memories. Denial can be used as a disconnect, so that our heart’s won’t let our head’s know what is or what has happened. Denial can also be used to defend, answer and explain away behaviors that undermine and invalidate our lives and our well-being.
Denial can be used to dismiss or invalidate another person’s pain or reality, in order to avoid having to interpret or address one’s own uncomfortable feelings and make changes. Denial can be used to justify the way in which other people treat us and the way that we treat ourselves.
Before I began my grief work — to be able to move from awareness to acceptance — I saw denial as an ally. When anguish motivated me to begin my grieving process I began to see denial as an active adversary. As my eyes slowly opened, I saw that denial was seeking to keep me trapped in a system that would or could not allow me to realize or accept my reality. In collusion with my fear (s), denial shamed me for not being enough even though I sought to do my very best. Denial also sought to keep me distracted so that I could not see a way to find my destiny. Denial led me to believe that I was my disability, deficits and limitations. Denial sought to silence my voice and keep me shrouded by a diagnosis, a label, a stereotype and societal stigmatization — that in effect sought to devalue my worth and value because I survived a traumatic brain injury. Denial sought to keep subservient to what “professionals” in the field of brain injury, as well as other people thought of me.
Denial sought to undermine my self-esteem and keep me crouched in the shadows of isolation. Denial led me to believe that what I thought and felt about myself was of no accord. Denial sought to keep me distracted so that I could not see the truth. Denial sought to disparage my value and worth because I did not live up to denial’s expectations. As my awareness grew and I saw how my denial was limiting my life so did my motivation to confront my denial. As I began to confront my denial, I became aware of how my life had been infected by a lie. As I examined the strategies that denial used to avoid the truth I started having spiritual awakenings. One of these spiritual awakenings revealed that denial had been acting as a door, in that denial denied access to any and all unwanted thoughts or feelings.
In effect, whenever any unwanted thoughts or feelings sought to be heard or experienced, denial would discount and minimize the relevance of those thoughts and feelings. Denial imposed a code of avoidance to mask what needed to be addressed. Denial, through shame; led me to believe that I was a failure because I could not overcome what I was powerless to change. Denial blinded me to the possibilities of what I had not tried.
Lessons from Confronting Denial
Through the process of confronting my denial I have learned some valuable lessons, that may also be of benefit to you. As I confronted my denial, I realized that I needed to keep the focus on myself. To own my reality, I needed to be accountable to and for how I was choosing to respond the loss (s) that I discovered were as a result of the injury to my brain. I discovered that I needed to own my own sadness because of my loss(s), regardless of whether anyone else could accept or understand how those loss’ affected / affect me. I needed to own my sadness because of my loss (s), instead of detaching from my reality. I needed to feel my feelings. I needed to sit with my discomfort. I needed to determine why I was reacting to people, places and situations. In my awareness and acceptance I discovered that I needed to determine why I thought that I needed to stay in and maintain both my denial and the denial that other people had surrounding the impact of my traumatic brain injury.
How Denial Affected Relationships
To understand how denial was being played out in my relationships, I needed to look closer. In a denial system, that seeks to maintain that reality does not exist; feelings are considered a threat, especially when those feelings trigger a sense of shame. Shame is different from guilt, in that shame is a being wound. Debilitating guilt and debilitating shame are very similar in that the individual is led to believe that they don’t just make mistakes, but they believe they are a mistake. As a traumatic brain injury survivor – with an invisible disability — I was led to believe that because I did not live up to expectations I was a mistake. For many years I internalized my inability to live up to expectations, despite my hard work and efforts to over achieve. Because I was led to believe that I did not just make mistakes, but that I was a mistake; I remained in denial.
For many years I sought to justify my worth and value through people pleasing, approval seeking and mind reading. I attempted to do more to be enough. When these strategies failed I sought to discard parts of myself that I found to be displeasing to my family, friends, teachers, schoolmates, employers and coworkers in an attempt to prove that I was not a mistake. Slowly, but progressively denial stole bits and pieces of my reality. In the process of discarding parts of my reality, I discarded parts of myself. In the process of discarding parts of myself that were not pleasing to other people, I traded my judgment for others reality. In my experience, when I began to confront denial, for what denial was in my life, I experienced various reactions. Among these reactions was anger. Because I believed that I deserved to be shamed for not being enough, I internalized my anger.
I was angry at myself, angry at other people and angry at my reality. My anger many times came out side ways, because I did not know how to express my anger in healthy ways. I was angry at my deficits and limitations. I was angry at life in general because I felt helpless in many ways. In the process of confronting both my and other people’s denial — per my reality — I discovered that I had and held resentments toward various people, places, churches, educational institutions and employers. I also had and held resentments towards myself. In my process, I discovered that as I held onto my anger and my resentment I pushed people away from me. I also found that in the process of alienating other people, I was in effect alienating myself. Consequently, I became my own enemy. When I realized that I needed to address my denial, anger, negativity, criticism and judgmental attitudes I began a program of rigorous honesty. Through being honest with myself, my sense of helplessness was replaced with hope.
Resentments are like drinking poison and hoping the other person dies.
Through my recovery process, I discovered that I needed to examine the resentments that I held toward other people and myself. In my process, I found that by examining my resentments I was able to begin looking at the patterns that I maintained in my relationships with other people and with myself. Through my process, I discovered that the resentments that I held toward other people and myself actually sustained my denial, anger, negativity, criticism and judgmental attitudes. Through my process, I discovered that resentments held the key that kept me locked in a room of isolation and self-reproach. To break free, I needed to get busy. In my experience, I found that I needed to determine who I held resentments towards and why I sought to maintain those resentments towards those individuals, family members, places, churches, significant relationships and institutions — so that I could come out of my isolation and be free of my self-reproach.
Holding onto anger, is like picking up a hot coal to throw at some one, however we are the ones who get burned
In my experience I needed to examine specific time periods in my life in order to be able to identify my resentments. Specifically, I needed to examine how I related to my family, friends, educational venues, churches, employers and other significant relationships. Because I wanted to be free of the negative energy that my resentments created, I did an inventory of my resentments during specific times in my life. I examined as far back as I could remember until I was 6 years of age, then from ages 6-12, 12-18, 18-24, 24-30, 30- 36, 36-42 and so on. Through my proactive participation in the above exercise I was able to identify specific patterns of behavior that I used to relate both to other people and to myself during those time periods. As I identified patterns in my behavior I was able to address what was my part, what was not my part and how I could be freed from the negative consequences of my resentments. As a byproduct, I was able to begin to recognize where other people ended and where I began. Consequently, I was able to begin to establish healthier relationships with both other people and with myself. Healthier relationships with the people who choose to remain in denial while realizing that I no longer need to remain in denial.
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