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We Deny In Order To Forgive

From the Blog of Phyllis G. Pollack.

       Have you ever considered that “denial” and “forgiveness” are the reverse sides of the same coin? In order to forgive, some degree of denial must necessarily be involved. More specifically, the only way we can convince ourselves to forgive someone for some purported transgression is to “overlook” the purported transgression, or, in truth, engage in denial.

          The intriguing linkage of these two concepts was the subject of an article in the New York Times “Science” Section on Tuesday, November 20, 2007 entitled “Denial Makes The World Go Round” by Benedict Carey. Noting that “everyone is in denial about something,” (Id.) Mr. Carey points to recent studies in the fields of psychology and anthropology that “. . . suggest that the ability to look the other way [i.e. denial] while potentially destructive, is also critically important to forming and nourishing close relationships.” (Id.) That is, . . .

         “The psychological tricks that people use to ignore a festering problem in their own households are the same ones that they need to live with everyday human dishonesty and betrayal; their own and others’. And it is these highly evolved abilities. . . that provide the foundation for. . . forgiveness.” (Id.)


      According to Michael McCullough, a psychologist at the University of Miami, “denial is part of the uneasy bargain we strike to be social creatures.” (Id.) While most humans really want to do what is morally right, most humans will also cut corners to gain an advantage. “Denial” gives the humans the wiggle room necessary to be morally right yet cut corners and to forgive others for doing exactly what they just did.

      It seems that our ability to deny “. . . evolved . . . to offset [our own] hypersensitivity to violations of trust.” (Id.) In early human times, people lived in small groups, and identifying the miscreant was a matter of survival. A bad rumor could lead to a loss of status which could then lead to expulsion from the tribe, if not death.

         To avoid this, humans engage in one or more levels of denial. The first and simplest is “inattention” in which the alleged transgression “goes under the radar because you are not paying much attention.” (Id.) Your response is to, essentially, ignore it. The next or second level is “passive acknowledgment”: – “when infractions are too persistent to go unnoticed.” (Id.) Again, the response is to let it pass, albeit with some sort of facial expression acknowledging its occurrence (e.g. a raised eyebrow, a smirk, etc.).

       The third level is to “reframe” – to restate the violation of trust or the betrayal as a mistake or as a foul-up. This sort of mental gymnastics is used in situations containing a serious breach of trust but the relationship is too important to risk its breakup. So. . . the transgression will be spinned as a lapse in competence or a foul-up so that a lack of competence, not the person, becomes the “fall guy.”

      The final level of denial is “willful blindness”: – “the person keeps the topic off limits… perhaps even to [herself]”. (Id.) Thus, the adultery or gambling addiction et certera becomes non-existent as it is never acknowledged much less discussed. By making the topic taboo, people can live with each other in an ongoing relationship . . . and with themselves. As the author points out, “tact and decorum” are synonymous to “taboo”: the former are simply more polite terms for the latter.

       So. . . relating this to disputes and mediations, this article teaches that one should not look at “denial” as a stumbling block to resolving a dispute. Quite the opposite, it is the necessary precondition, if not building block, to reach a resolution. People usually don’t resolve disputes unless and until they are willing to forgive, at least a little bit. And, they need the “denial” in order to get to the forgiveness stage. In simple terms. . . everyone needs “to save face.” Denial allows them to do just that.

         . . . Just something to think about.  


Phyllis Pollack

Phyllis Pollack with PGP Mediation uses a facilitative, interest-based approach. Her preferred mediation style is facilitative in the belief that the best and most durable resolutions are those achieved by the parties themselves. The parties generally know the business issues and priorities, personalities and obstacles to a successful resolution as… MORE >

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