A Coaching Power Tool By Marcela Bubnikova, Life Coach, SWITZERLAND
The Benefits of Practising Acceptance vs. Denial Defence Mechanism
In this paper, I will discuss the power tool of acceptance vs. denial. Firstly, I will describe the meaning of acceptance as a judgment-free mindset and then I will continue to the benefits of practising acceptance. Then I will examine the defence mechanism called Denial. Fundamentally, denial is a stance of ignoring or refusing a fact which is in contradiction with beliefs and could result in emotional distress or pain. Additionally, I will discuss the consequences of denial in life in the short and long term. In the section titled the impact of shifting from denial to acceptance, I will emphasise the importance of practising acceptance, using science-based research to explore the positive impact of acceptance on individuals’ well-being through facing uncomfortable emotions or feelings.
Furthermore, I will consider the application of acceptance and denial in coaching sessions, for example, the coach´s role in helping a client. Additionally, I will describe the features of denial in behaviour and then explain a list of questions which could expose denial and how to shift from denial to acceptance. Finally, I will reflect on my own experience of acceptance and denial to examine the practical perspective of this power tool.
The Difference Between Denial vs. Acceptance
In essence, acceptance means “taking a stance of non-judgmental awareness and actively embracing the experience of thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations as they occur” (Hayes et al., 2004). Acceptance spurs us to be open to the spectrum of feelings, thoughts, and ideas. Therefore, accepting each experience means examining the inner and outer world without any prejudices and judgments. Moreover, Hayes et al., (2012) argue that the purpose of acceptance exercises is not to reduce emotional arousal but to learn to stay with the current experience. Essentially, practising acceptance means enhancing our cognitive skills due to the fact that we develop a skill to acknowledge feelings, emotions, thoughts, beliefs, values, assumptions or opinions.
Certainly, as human beings, we seek that kind of information, events, circumstances or people, which could support our own perception of the world. However, practising a stance of acceptance has inner power which could make us strong, brave and open to embracing difficulties and obstacles. This has an impact on various aspects of our lives such as mental well-being, relationships, social and soft skills, and personal or work goals. In addition, accepting negative feelings without any judgments could lead to the development of adaptive coping mechanisms. This could be observed when one deals with fear. Instead of avoiding the experience, people can learn how to deal with the feeling, resulting in greater contentment/more satisfaction simultaneously.
On the other hand, denial is a form of defence mechanism, which is an unconscious reaction to avoid stress or pain. Which was first introduced by Sigmund Freud and later carried on by his daughter, who wrote a great deal on this topic. Anna described denial as unconsciousness protection of ego from discomfort or distress. The central feature of denial is refusing or ignoring thoughts, feelings, emotions, behaviour, problems or facts which could cause pain. Branden (1994) argued that denial is triggered by feelings of shame, guilt, inadequacy or insecurity, which could mean that instead of facing a particular problem, one involuntarily distorted the reality, which would be more accurate to one´s idea of the world. For example, alcoholics often deny their drinking problem and argue that they have control over it.
Undoubtedly, denial has an important function which is not intentionally negative. Denial most often happens when facts or reality are in contradiction with our beliefs, assumptions, values or self-imagination/ self-perception, resulting in mental distress or pain. Therefore, it could be argued that denial appears as a fast solution to a problem, however, in the long term, it could have far-reaching consequences. For example, when we are overlooking or ignoring a problem it could grow exponentially. For example, denying emotions or feelings could have a toll on general well-being, causing problems in other areas of life and could result in mental issues and negative habits such as self-sabotaging or addictive behaviour. Although denial could appear a quick solution, it could adversely affect people’s personal lives due to unhealthy coping mechanisms.
Three types of denial
- Simple denial occurs when someone denies that something unpleasant is happening. …
- Minimization occurs when a person admits an unpleasant fact while denying its seriousness. …
- Projection occurs when a person admits both the seriousness and reality of an unpleasant fact but blames someone else https://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/psychpedia/denial
The Impact of Shifting From Denial to Acceptance
We cannot change anything unless we accept it, C.G. Jung
Acceptance means staying and embracing an experience and/or the level and intensity of feelings. In contrast, staying in a position of denial to avoid negative feelings or not deal with difficulties could lead to losing contact with our feelings and with reality, which could harm our relationships or have a negative impact on work-life or decision-making. Ford et al (2018) designed a study to test the impact of acceptance on individuals’ lives. He draws inferences from a study of 1003 participants showing that practising acceptance regularly is in conjunction with psychological well-being in long term. Additionally, in another study, he discovered that acceptance mitigates negative emotions, however, it doesn’t increase the level of positivity. This means that acceptance abates the intensity and length of negative emotion. For example, acceptance could reduce the likelihood of suffering from depression or burnout. In relationships, it could contribute to empathy and understanding, which could leverage communications between partners. By accepting feelings and emotions, we can gain awareness of emotional/mental patterns, which ultimately impact our behaviour.
What you deny submits you, what you accept transforms you. C.G. Jung
Undoubtedly, as has been discussed denial could have dangerous effects. However, we should bear in mind that dealing with denial requires examining our perception and preconception of reality. This is a crucial part of the healing and growing process. Denial as a defence mechanism protects the ego from discomfort. However, resolving the issue of ego unifies the mind and reality. Therefore, accepting pain or distress could result in diminished suffering and increase the individuals’ ability to mentally support themselves, which could allow individuals to reconsider which approach needs to be taken (cited in Welford, 2013). By shifting from denial to acceptance we could live a happier life.
Application Acceptance to Denial
Coach’s Role in Shifting From Acceptance to Denial
The coach´s approach has a significant impact on the coachee´s ability to shift from denial to acceptance. Essentially, the coach’s skills demonstrated in the session are key to the coachee´s success and foundation for growth. One of the hallmarks of the coach’s role in a coaching session is being open to the client’s experience and staying non-judgmental, which plays a crucial role in setting an environment for the coachee to be open to pain and distress. For example, a coachee could feel embarrassed or uncomfortable because of the struggle they have. Therefore, it is central to increasing the awareness that the coach stays non-judgmental to help clients to deal with their experiences.
Moreover, when a coach remains supportive and acknowledges a coachee’s situation, I personally believe that it could launch the inner power in the coachee to elicit inner discomfort and examine all facets of a situation. For example, a coach could express an observation of the impact of a given situation on the coachee´s feelings, which could encourage a client to direct attention to the discomfort.
Exploring the Denial
Without a doubt, the coachee is responsible for the outcome of the session and resolving the issues she or he deals with. However, the coach could encourage their clients to overcome denial, as it could be invisible/unconscious for the coachee. There are some features which could help a coach identify when a client is in a state of denial:
- Resistance – This is central to denial because it’s the resistance which predominantly indicates that the coachee is in a state of denial. A coach could observe that a coachee displays certainty, without thinking, that something is neither true nor impossible. For example, the coachee could claim that she or he does not have an issue with XY.
- Body language – voice changes, words are repeated often and emphasized. Gestures, for example covering eyes or month.
- Contradiction – in beliefs, assumptions, options, needs or emotions and mirroring them back.
A hallmark of a coaching session is a question due to the fact that it creates a thought-provoking conversation. Foremost, a question invites a coachee to think about issues and it could show if a client is in a state of denial.
- What is XY?
- What does XY mean?
- How do you feel when you think about XY?
- Where do you feel XY? What is the level of XY on a scale from 1 to 10?
- What comes to your mind XY?
- What needs to be addressed?
- What is the impact of this situation on you?
- What can you learn about this situation?
- What are the consequences of this situation?
- What truth about this situation?
- How would you describe your attitude in this situation?
- How would you describe your feeling?
- What are your needs?
- How do you perceive yourself in the situation?
- What is the challenge for you in the situation?
- What do you find difficult about XY?
- What can you do about XY?
- How can you approach this situation?
- What could be the best outcome for you in this situation?
- How does this feeling serve you?
- What could you benefit from staying with those feelings/ or spending a little more time with this issue/challenge?
Although those questions are common for coaching sessions, we should bear in mind that it gives the coach a great opportunity to understand the client’s situation and any of those questions could spot denial. It’s a defence mechanism which will always appear in the coachee’s answer.
Shifting a Perspective
Additionally, the coach could support a coachee in shifting perspectives which could buffer the distress of denial and help a client to develop adaptive behaviour.
- Going out of control zone – defining with the coachee what is doable and what is not. Essentially, staying in a conform zone means staying with what is known. However, going into uncharted water could evoke awareness.
- Critical thinking – challenging a client’s thoughts: As an exercise, a coach could invite a coachee for one of the following workouts:
- Empty mind – the coachee plays a role when he or she clears their mind and looks at the situation without any preconceptions.
- “What would happen If……?” In this brainstorming, exercise coachee allows for investigating all possibilities and their conceivable consequences.
- Playing the detective: coachee writes down all information they have about the particular issue in bullet points and then looks for arguments or facts to prove and disclaims each point of their list.
The two factors, the coach´s attitude and inviting a coachee to open up to the discomfort, are key to shifts from denial to acceptance. Without any doubt, coaches can help a client in shifting their perspective and find resources to face the pain.
Shifting From Acceptance vs. Denial Is a Tool
In conclusion, I would like to highlight the fact that shifting from denial to acceptance is a tool which has a powerful effect on well-being. Without any doubt, everyone has encountered some form of denial in their lives, and we also all have an experience with acceptance. In my opinion, denial is a dark part of the psyche which is used to hide or mask an inner source of pain. However, I believe that acceptance is a lifeline to help individuals deal with their difficulties. Practising acceptance, in my own experience, brings peace, balance and serenity. Therefore, it is my view that it is important to learn to discern denial and exercise acceptance, ultimately creating a more positive life and having a positive impact on our happiness.
The Power of Self-Compassion, M. Welford, 2013
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, the Process and Practice of Mindful Change, Hayes, S. C., Strosahl, K. D. & Wilson, K. G., 2012.
What Is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy? Hayes, S.C., Strosahl, K.D. , Twohig, M. And Wilson, K.G., 2004
Six Pillars of Self-Esteem. Branden, N., 1994
The Psychological Health Benefits of Accepting Negative Emotions and Thoughts: Laboratory, Diary, and Longitudinal Evidence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Ford, B. Q., Lam, P., John, O. P., &Mauss, I. B. (2018)