Oliver James: The source of denial

Ben Elton is certainly financially richer than when I interviewed him on TV in 1987, but I do not know if he is now better off, emotionally speaking.

Back then he had a Repressor Personality. About 10 per cent of the population have this tendency to engage in flat denial of unpleasant or uncomfortable thoughts. In experiments, they are quick to call up happy memories in order to distract themselves after watching an unpleasant film, and may employ obsessive thoughts to avoid worrying ideas.

Asked to recall negative childhood experiences, repressors take longer to do so than non-repressors. Having listened to a story about a child with uncaring parents, they are able to remember fewer negative incidents from it.

Elton's account of his childhood was superficial and vague, glossed over as a rational, civilised regime in which, 'If parents are fair and give clear reasons for things, it works.' He could not recall examples of anything that had happened in his earliest years, saying, 'I've got nothing to say about this because we just got on well.'

Regarding conflict with his parents, he asserted: 'You're on really infertile ground here, because I don't think about it. I don't look into psychology, I'm a very shallow thinker. I don't feel any need to analyse. I'm happy.'

Placed in stressful situations, repressors tend to say, 'I'm fine,' and express little emotion outwardly. But beneath the calm exterior, physical monitoring proves that their heart races, blood pressure soars and palms sweat.

In Elton's case, it soon emerged that he was not as happy as he first claimed. He was a little alarmed by his workaholia. At the time, he was writing the third series of Blackadder. 'I have been working unfeasibly hard for six-and- a-half years,' he said. 'I do spend an inordinate amount of time on my own, writing hour after hour, every day, seven days a week. Maybe that's why I don't ask questions; if I started looking around, I'd get scared.'

After many minutes of struggle, he finally got a brief glimpse of why he worked so hard: 'I feel guilty when I'm not working, that's true.' But, almost as soon as this insight caught fire, it was extinguished by a torrent of defensive talk about how his parents could not have been the cause of the guilt.

Of course, all of us engage in denial of unpleasant truths. Surrounding ourselves with a rose-tinted bubble of positive illusions keeps us from going bonkers. But repressors pay a heavy price for taking this much further - they suffer more physical illness, burying their distress somatically, putting them at greater risk of heart attack, cancer and a weak immune system.

Since we met, Elton appears to be doing more work than ever. He has taken to writing musicals with Andrew Lloyd Webber, as well as mass-market econovels. 'But what the hell,' the man I met in 1987 would probably have joked if asked to think about this, 'Who's the millionaire around here?'

Thanks to guardian.co.uk who have provided this article. View the original here.


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