an off-beat interpretation of denial psychology

Denial psychology

The Dread Pirate himself, playing irreverently in the sand | Photo Credit: Carlos Guijarro

Sit down.

Ignore your surroundings.

Think. Think about anything, think about what you were just thinking about before you stumbled your way here.

Now think about thinking. Think about how your brain can take raw information like sights, sounds, feelings, and process it into useful, contextually relevant data. Imagine this happening, countless neurons creating thoughts and operations by connecting with each other. Picture this in whichever way makes sense to you (my brain looks a lot like the Tron universe1).

Your brain can make abstract connections, interpret meanings, and decipher messages so well we don’t even need to be fully conscious. It’s incredible.

And terrifying. The brain’s subconscious ability to function is arguably our most impressive—and arguably the most dangerous.

I’m using “dangerous” under a unique set of circumstances. In most situations, our brain’s subconscious abilities keep us out of dangerous situations: you don’t suffocate when you sleep, you don’t forget that the inside of a hot pocket holds the tongue-melting heat of the center of the sun for at least 2 minutes, you don’t automatically put bright orange objects in your mouth just because they’re bright.

Here, our brain’s sub-consciousness is like a behind-the-scenes hero, performing the necessary tasks to keep your body’s separate pieces a thriving, efficient community. The following you read below is my interpretation of the actions of my personal subconscious; so let’s call it a him, and name that him Robert.



Robert enjoys his job as my behind-the-scenes hero. He’s in charge of the background operations of my life and generally stays out of the public sphere2, just the way he likes it. He knows what to do when I want to walk, talk, sit, and put my arms in-the-air-like-I-just-don’t-care. He keeps me breathing like I have to, sweating when I need to, and, once upon a time, growing while I should3. Ultimately, he’s comfortable, and his comfort is important to my health and well-being.

Most of the time, Robert is a really great guy.

But Robert isn’t perfect. He has some issues that run deep within him and, therefore, deep within me, and one in particular that throws my brain into a rather primitive state.

Like I said, Robert likes to be comfortable. Long ago, when my subconscious control panel was little more than a couple of buttons, Robert realized that the more comfortable he was, the less complications (and the less work) he needed to manage. It began the very first time I was hungry: Robert, still very new in his role as my subconscious, realized that hunger was pretty uncomfortable, and, since this discomfort caused other issues like stress and exhaustion giving him more things to deal with, his job became more difficult. So he passed along this feeling to my conscious, which then gave him an order (from the very short list of functions available to fresh-out-the-womb babies) to kick, scream, and/or cry. As a result, I received the food I needed and all the systems going haywire at Robert’s workplace returned to normal.

Robert learned a valuable lesson that day: discomfort = pandemonium. And since pandemonium makes his job less manageable, he decided to avoid it whenever possible.

You see, Robert places his comfort (which is in many ways my comfort too) above the comfort of his companions, those running things in the conscious department of my brain, because he is biologically human, and humans are biologically narcissistic4. And sure, sometimes a little self-centeredness can be beneficial, even necessary to our physical and emotional health, but often it leads to not-so-healthy behavior.


When does Robert’s love for comfort clash with healthy human expression? Unfortunately, it can be as simple as a little thing Smash Mouth thinks we could all use a little of: change.

(Only one line of this song is immediately relevant, but, who knows, maybe you need a little more Smash Mouth in your life. We all do, really. Or perhaps this is your perfect kind-of-obnoxious-but-catchy-blog-reading-background music. Either way, I’ll leave it here. For you.)

As prescribed by Robert, humans enjoy being comfortable in their situation. It’s part of who we are—as social creatures, we undeniably enjoy being with other creatures (usually humans), and oftentimes we become attached to the circumstances and setting that allow us to be around the humans we like.

But life is only so cooperative with our comfort zone. We can apply the words of John F. Kennedy:

Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or the present are certain to miss the future.

And one of “those” that JFK alludes to? My good friend Robert.

One of Robert’s biggest flaws is his short-sightedness. In JFK’s words, he looks only to the past or the present, since that’s really all he can process. Everything related to the future and events-that-have-yet-to-pass fall under the responsibility of my conscious thinking department, so he can’t really understand what’s going on when change looms in the distance like some big, thick cloud of discomfort, Robert’s least favorite thing.

Ultimately, Robert only has one way of dealing with change, although it can be neatly separated into two categories: 1. sudden change and 2. imminent change.

Sudden change is an alteration of the circumstances we are accustomed to with little-to-no warning that anything but the ordinary is up ahead. In other words, you had no idea that bunk5 was about to go down.

This includes a lot of the more tragic scenarios that humans everywhere face, like the unforeseen death of a close friend or family member or an unexpected damage to or loss of property. These are the kind of events that we could potentially encounter at any present moment, but are not actively worried about.

Before we look at Robert’s reaction to these things in my life, allow me to mention the alternate to sudden change:

Imminent Change is an impending alteration to our circumstances that we, the recipients of this alteration, are aware and in anticipation of before it occurs.

Imminent change often includes the same plight that we face in sudden change, with the exception being that we are aware of the oncoming situation. In this case we can anticipate the oncoming change, and, hypothetically, prepare ourselves for it.

Hypothetically. This is where Robert takes the stage. As a disdainer of discomfort, Robert hates dealing with the added stresses, pressures, and negative biological inflictions that pair with a painful change. And since Robert is short-sighted, he rarely concerns himself with anything outside of my present subconscious.

My Five Step Denial Process

The result: a five-step process of how I fail to accept imminent change.

1. The Plan.

The Plan is a simple, beautiful step. Essentially it is a form of self-empowerment; you tell yourself, I am awesome. This is totally something I can handle.

This is when I decided I wanted to move to Japan, researched whether or not I was qualified to live there, and created a way to make it work. My plan, therefore, was to move and live in Japan (in a not-too-big city) for 2-4 years, teaching English for at least 1 of those and looking into other opportunities afterward.

2. The First Steps

The First Steps, like The Plan, are equally empowering, but often daunting. If change is coming in the form of a big move, task, or some other event that is ultimately up to you to enact, then everything can fall apart alarmingly quick at this stage. But, if you can swallow the task and manage to work through the details, you might tell yourself, I am still awesome. And this is much harder than I thought.

Enacting the plan for my move, some first steps were easier than others. Easy: taking a semester of Japanese 101 since it fit into my schedule. Less easy: narrowing down the opportunities available to teach English in Japan, sifting through hundreds of pages of information. Hard: sending out applications to any opportunity I thought was worthwhile, and keeping track of who I contacted and what I needed for each application. More hard: interviewing with the companies who reached back to me, preparing for interviews with sample lessons and desperately attempting not to sweat through my shirt, other shirt, and suit jacket.

3. Hey Look, Life

Depending on the situation, steps 2 and 3 can intertwine for some time, but the reality is Life and all its relative pettiness continues. The First Steps can difficult to manage, and hanging out with your pals might feel more relevant than planning for a big move 6 months in the future. Even after you’ve taken the necessary First Steps, Life returns with all its lackluster to distract you from the reality of your oncoming change.

Hey Look, Life hit me like a humongous beach ball this summer. Robert re-found his comfort zone after I began working at my old job as a tour guide in Kayakland6, and took control of my everyday emotions. “Has anyone ever been kayaking before?”

4. Meaningless Affirmation

Meaningless Affirmation also overlaps with the previous steps—while you’re living your carefree step 3, interested humans who hear about your upcoming change might ask you about it. Soon you develop a standard set of answers to non-unique questions, and as a result you spend a lot of time talking about your future without actually processing it.

“Well, after this summer I’m moving to Japan. To teach English, exactly. Yes, I’m very excited! I can’t wait to immerse myself in the culture, learn the language, eat the food, all while working and sustaining myself.” With Robert at the reigns pressing the easiest-reply-I’ve-thought-of-thus-far button, from the inside out I was as cool as a cucumber-in-a-cocktail about moving over 5,000 miles away.

5. Flashes of Oh

As time runs out, Hey Look, Life begins to fade away and the impending reality starts staring your now no-longer-ordinary life with a menacing look like the giant moon from Legend of Zelda’s Majora’s Mask (for maximum creepiness skip to 3:30 on the video below), and anytime you glance upwards at your impending fate, your stomach drops and you have a Flash of Oh.

If you’re moving far away for a long time, these will happen before, during, and after painful goodbyes to friends and family. Or, if you decide, like me, to finish writing a blog post about leaving approximately 2 hours before you head to the airport, then you, like me, will have a Flash of Oh as your clammy hands type the last few somewhat-somber sentences.

And so?

Your five steps might look much different than mine. Perhaps you’re a far healthier human who is able to accept reality longer than the day before you confront it. Maybe you’re like me the first time I moved out far-away-for-a-while7, and your first Flash of Oh clicked when you were in the car on your way to LAX.

And me? Well, my time to leave is finally here. It’s incredibly bittersweet, and the last few weeks in San Diego were consistently filled with altaffectia (if you’re confused read this) as I spent time with the people I love in the city I adore, but like JFK said, “Ask what you can do for your country.”

Wait, no, wrong quote.

“Change is the law of life.” And Robert, you’re just going to have to deal with it.



The Dread Pirate Trey


1. No, not the new Tron, in which the only redeeming factor was the return of Jeff Bridges.

2. There are moments when Robert is pushed out of his comfort zone, like when we enter manual-breathing mode, and he is forced to leave his station and fight our stubborn, incompetent conscious in order to resume control of our respiratory system.

3. I remain resentful with Robert for cutting my growth one inch short of 6 ft. tall.

4. Let me guess, you don’t think they are. Really? You dare challenge me?

5. Bunk (n): [irreverent] nonsense; un-pleasantry. Accredited to Jake Larsen, a true words-man (although he doesn’t know it).

6. My name for the Boat Launch at La Jolla Shores beach, where five individual kayak rental/tour companies launch and land their tours.