Minimization, Denial, and Amnesia

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I’m writing this time about three defenses that protect us from overwhelming feelings. It isn’t only people who have endured extreme trauma as children or who are dissociative who employ these defenses; everybody does. It’s a matter how often they are used and how much they interfere with making good choices in life.

Sometimes people assume that defenses are “bad.” They aren’t good or bad; they are simply protective, Ask any one of us if it is agonizing to freak out all the time and you will get an earful. Luckily defenses smooth things out and calm things down so that there is less suffering over-all. But they can also be used to damp down feelings about situations that are dangerous, and, while it might feel better in the moment, it increases suffering in the long run. So are defenses good or bad? Like so many other things, it all depends.

These three defenses are related. I’ll start with the mildest one.

Minimization is down-playing the importance of something, either consciously or unconsciously, either to oneself or to others. “I was only five miles over the speed limit.” (Actually, it was twenty-five.) I wasn’t drunk last night – I only had three drinks. (Three drinks in an hour can get you pretty drunk.) “Don’t worry about me – I’m fine.” (Well, actually, I am feeling a little bit bad about…”)

If minimization is unconscious, it’s harder to break through than if it is conscious, and it’s almost impossible to do it alone. How can you know something you don’t know? Unless, of course, you have an alter who does know and who can tell you in such a way that you are able to listen.

Denial is more robust than minimization. Denial means you believe something that isn’t true. “We weren’t poor as children. We always had food on the table.” But the kids’ clothes were worn-out hand-me-downs, the electricity often was turned off, and, during the last week of the month, dinner was usually spaghetti or rice and beans, if that. Believing a fantasy allows you to hold your head high.

Denial can be deep-seated. I once worked with an alcoholic who believed with all sincerity that beer did not contain alcohol. Showing him the label with the percentage of alcohol clearly marked just elicited the response, “Oh, that’s only a marketing ploy.” If he didn’t believe it, he was doing a great job of irritating me.

Denial, by definition, is unconscious. If you know you are denying something, you aren’t in denial; you are lying to yourself. You may half believe your lie, but you half don’t. The truth of the matter is buried in the unconscious. Why? Because it is too unbearable to face, at least for now. Maybe later in life, when you have more resources, you will be able to come to grips with the issue, but not right now.

Amnesia is the strongest of these three defenses. It’s as if a fifty-foot high ten-feet deep stone wall has been erected around things that would be totally overwhelming if conscious. We think of amnesiac barriers as existing between alters to keep them apart. Imagine for a moment that the whole system has one mind. The system believes that if those alters were in contact it with each other would be extremely dangerous for everybody in the system. So the alters must stay apart, and the information they have must not be communicated.

As I said earlier, people who are not multiple can also have amnesia. A study was done where girls who had been sexually assaulted as teens were identified through hospital records and interviewed a few years later. Most did not remember either being assaulted or going to the hospital. (Wish I could remember the reference.) Some probably were dissociative to begin with, but undoubtedly many were not.

I believe that the phenomenon of amnesia for traumatic events in non-multiple people is less studied than in dissociative people. Perhaps I just am not up on the literature about people who aren’t like me! I don’t remember any explanation of why some women forgot their trauma and others didn’t. That would make a fascinating piece of research.

When it comes to survivors of ritual abuse or other forms of severe trauma, it’s intuitively easy to understand why intense pain and terror inflicted in a group setting before the age of six is bound to produce amnesia. If that weren’t enough, many of us have remembered hypnotic sessions when we were repeatedly told to forget and never remember. And many of us were manipulated to have only certain alters know certain things, and those alters were programmed to appear on command of the handlers. It’s little wonder out amnesia is so hard to overcome.

One personal thought. I do not seem to “lose time” in the sense that there is a gap in my consciousness. It’s not like being under anesthesia or in a an alcoholic black-out.  I don’t lose information instantaneously; the information doesn’t disappear like snow on the water. My memories fade out with time. Sometimes it takes hours, something months. The result is that there is precious little in my long-term memory.

I believe that I was taught so well not to remember that my mind was molded to forget things. The hypnotic command to forget is no longer confined to dangerous things; it applies to almost everything. It’s annoying to me and everybody around me, but there is little I can do except find work-arounds. For example, my keys are tied to my purse, and my purse is a vivid color that is nothing like anything else in my environment. It takes a lot of effort to think of ways around my forgetfulness, but when I figure things out, life does get simpler.


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