The Perils of Living in Denial
One of my clients laughed nervously the other day when I said that he lives at Disneyland. You know, “It’s beautiful and fun, and there’s a parade every day!” This is how I often describe what I call the Idealist personality pattern, in which someone relies on creating and maintaining a “pretty picture” in order to survive.
Metaphorically, when someone calls the Idealist and says, “Hey, you’d better get back home. The water heater just broke and the basement is flooded,” the Idealist feels that their pretty picture is threatened, and they insist even more strongly that they live at Disneyland where it’s beautiful and there’s a parade every day. Another way to say this, of course, is that the Idealist lives in denial. Survival depends on staying disconnected from what is really going on, because it isn’t safe to feel any negative stuff. When a negative feeling starts to surface, the Idealist goes into overdrive to make sure that their ideal is maintained.
You might notice this in people when you see a situation they’re in that is clearly going wrong in some way, and yet, they insist to you that everything is great there. They usually get angry if you point out what you see is going wrong. They feel that you’re trying to destroy their “pretty picture,” and instead of letting themselves experience what’s going wrong for them (say, in an abusive relationship), they blame you for “making them feel bad.” And then, they typically work even harder to keep that situation together, maybe even by pushing you away.
You could argue that there is a good side to the Idealist pattern. People with it are usually pretty successful at making good things happen in their lives. In fact, they’re the people who everyone else thinks just have great lives, easily and automatically. But, the Idealist’s secret is that they have to work really hard at it, and over time it gets harder and harder. They usually show up at my door when that hard work isn’t even paying off, anymore. No matter how hard they work, they can’t keep the pretty picture going, anymore.
Why is that? It’s because their Disneyland is built on top of what I call Learned Distress, the feeling absorbed early in life that there is something wrong with them being just who they are naturally. For Idealists, it’s not safe to feel Learned Distress, so they just cut off their connection to the pipe that their feelings come through by staying focused on their ideal, instead. The big problem with that is that their well-being, their core energy that can generate good things for them naturally and easily, comes through that same feeling pipe as their Learned Distress does. They’ve cut themselves off from well-being at the same time they disconnected from their Learned Distress.
As a result, they have to work hard in two ways. The first is that staying disconnected takes energy. Learned Distress is intense and it keeps wanting to pop up, so it takes energy to keep it buried. Idealists often keep themselves very busy in order to not feel their Learned Distress. Second, because they are cut off from well-being, the energy that could help things go well for them easily, they have to manufacture the “pretty picture” out of thin air. To top it off, Learned Distress intensifies as we get older, so maintaining Disneyland takes more and more work over time.
When Idealists come to me for help unlearning their Learned Distress, I usually tell them that the shift they’ll experience isn’t necessarily that their lives will look very different from the outside. They’ll continue to be successful people. What changes for them is how they feel about being themselves and in the ease of accomplishing what matters to them. For the first time, they just get to relax and be who they really are, without the constant need to stuff down their negative feelings. And, as they relax and let themselves feel, their well-being is free to be the generating force behind more and more of their moments. This means that good things happen easily, instead of through the Herculean effort that most Idealists are accustomed to.
Do you live at Disneyland? What are the ways you deny what is really happening or how you really feel? Did you realize that your denial results from the fear of feeling that there is something wrong with you, but that what you end up denying instead is your well-being? No matter how pretty your picture is, your well-being is so much better and easier to live with. I hope you’ll take the brave step of leaving Disneyland one of these days to find that out.
Sara Avery helps people get unstuck in their relationships, health, career, and self-expression. Learn how she can help you tackle your biggest challenges.