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I Just Can’t Think About That Right Now…

Yesterday, we touched a bit on the (touchy) subject of that old favorite, denial, as we considered job burnout.   Have you ever noticed how easy denial is to spot in our friends?  Of course, we never do it – right?

In the spirit of ‘we teach best what we need to learn’, let’s explore this trusty old coping mechanism.  Certainly, denial is a huge part of the anti-insurance equation: ‘I take good care of myself, so I don’t need health insurance’ is a popular one; so is ‘I’m too young to worry about life insurance’, or ‘my family can take care itself when I’m gone’ or even the perennial favorite, ‘I’m smart.  I can read market reports.  I would rather invest my money than buy insurance, so I can pay on my own terms’.  Really?  Sensible independence is one thing, refusing to accept some grown-up responsibility is quite another.  Wouldn’t it be lovely if we all had those magical insights, crystal balls and the ability to liquidate assets, at a gain, at the drop of a hat?  Talk about denial!

Okay.  Denial is about being unrealistic.  Of course it has its strong points.  Indeed, for short periods of time, denial is truly invaluable.  It lets us get our bearings as we adjust to a shock or to a painful or stressful situation.  But we cannot stay there.  If we do, refusing to acknowledge that something is very, very wrong, the period of adjustment becomes, instead,  a virtual jail term.

How do you know if you’re in denial?  You might be in trouble if you:

  • Avoid looking squarely at a situation; cannot face the facts
  • Refuse to even acknowledge that you are caught up in a stressful situation or have a serious problem
  • Minimize the potential consequences of the situation
How conscious is denial?  Most experts agree that denial is essentially an unconscious process, a perfectly natural way to buy some time, to cope with emotional stress and conflict, painful images and thoughts, anxiety, all things truly scary.  But there may well be a conscious element, too – we can sort of choose to be in denial.  Or perhaps we choose to stay there once we get there.  No one wants to feel too exposed or vulnerable, or threatened.  And we can be in denial about ourselves or about what someone else is going through.  Some of the common reasons for denial include:
There are times when denial can be a very damaging rather than merely unrealistic or obviously silly.  Some of these might sound familiar:
  • The parents of a young teenage girl who is clearly addicted to drugs keep giving her ‘pocket money’.
  • A couple is in so much credit card debt that they toss their monthly bills in the trash, unopened, because they cannot bring themselves to look at them.
  • A student witnesses a horrific campus shooting but promises she is fine and unaffected by it.
  • The wife of an elderly man in the end stage of life insists he is getting better so will not discuss funeral arrangements, wills or health care directives.
  • A business owner misses a meeting or two each week because of hangovers, but maintains that there is no problem since his work is still getting done.
How can we move through denial and face the music?  Goodness knows, it’s not easy, but it can be done.  Keep in mind that the denial response does not actually change the situation – it changes us, for a short time.  It gives us some breathing room, a way to adjust.  So keep reminding yourself that you won’t make the problem any worse by looking directly at it.  In fact, looking at it realistically is the first step towards solving it.  
Here are a few coping strategies:
  • Ask yourself what you really fear in the situation.
  • Let yourself explore and express those fears and feelings.
  • Consider the potential harmful or negative consequences of not taking action.
  • Identify the irrational beliefs you have about the problem.  Remind yourself that most of what we worry about never actually happens.
  • Keep a journal about the experience.
  • Take a good friend or family member into your confidence.  Tell them what’s going on.  Support is invaluable, but unless you open up, no one can help you.
  • Try joining a support group or an appropriate online community to share ideas and solutions.
  • If you stay stuck, consider working with a mental health provider.
With time, tactful persistence  and patient understanding, we can, in fact, cope with our own coping mechanisms.  We can take back control, overcome the hurdles, plow the driveways.  We will always have problems and challenges and crossroads – but let’s leave the light on, shall we?  It makes it much easier to get the job done that way.

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