Sometimes in life, we have to face the unpleasant and deal with difficult circumstances. We all know what it is like to want to shut the door on reality and hold on to the dream of how we wish things could be. We may try to block out reality, minimize the problem, go into wishful thinking and/or play an alternative movie in our heads. Any of these can give some relief in the short-term but how helpful is it in the end? Is it best to face problems head on or is there little harm in burying our heads in the sand if only for awhile? Here are just a few examples of scenarios many of us might identify with…
Fran has been dealing with a verbally abusive boss for years. Despite numerous complaints by fellow co-workers, his behavior has not changed. Nevertheless, she keeps on thinking that if she just hangs in, his behavior and things in the workplace will be different. Marvin’s son has been hanging out with a shady crowd and suddenly seems to have lots of money to spend. When his wife confided in him that she found dope in their son’s room and was afraid that he was selling drugs, he told her that she was over-reacting. Natalie noticed a lump in her breast but she is terrified of doctors and was afraid if she went, she would hear the worst. She ended up putting it out of her mind and when it did come up, she tried not to think about it. Aaron rear-ended another driver yesterday and has been obsessing ever since. He has come up with over a dozen scenarios of what he could have done differently to avoid causing the accident. Sarah’s friend betrayed her confidence in a serious way but Sarah hates confrontation so she tells herself that it wasn’t a big deal. Susan’s hair is thinning and her hairline is receding; both are normal responses to aging. She has had repeated cosmetic procedures to the point of compromising her retirement savings. She is still unhappy with her appearance so she tries not to look at herself in the mirror. Shelby has fallen off the wagon many times. It happened last weekend again. Despite her husband’s begging and pleading that she face reality and give up alcohol entirely, she still insists that she can be a moderate drinker.
We all have our own unique ways of avoiding, staving off and twisting reality. Some people minimize, others deny what is happening entirely and others still, distort the truth so that the situation isn’t so painful. All of these are natural unconscious defenses (i.e., protective mechanisms) that kick in when the psyche is unable to deal with something that is too painful to integrate at the time. Therapy seeks to help people to let down their defenses and face what it is that may be disturbing to face if only a bit at a time. But why not block out what is painful and bask in our much more pleasant delusions? Well, as I tell my clients, the problem is this: Just because we tell ourselves that something is not true, does not mean that the problem has now disappeared and that feelings about it have evaporated. More often than not, what we have defended against and suppressed, is still lingering somewhere in our unconscious. It may come out in anxiety-ridden dreams; it may reveal itself as a sense of general angst and malaise in our waking life, or physical symptoms may begin to emerge as a result of unacknowledged, internalized stress. When problems are not faced head on, they may just bite us in the ass when we are not looking! In fact, when we delay facing the inevitable, we can often end up creating unnecessary crises in our lives. Shoving the visa bill in the dresser drawer one more time without looking at it, may just end up creating unmanageable debt. Pretending that things are O.K. at work when they are clearly very stressful, can result in unexpected panic attacks and necessary sick leave. Going blind to our partner’s abusive behavior will not only not make it disappear, ignoring it is likely to result in the abuse escalating. More often than not, when problems are minimized and avoided, the sky may have to fall on our heads, before we are willing to address the unfortunate facts. This can result in a crisis-ridden life!
Perhaps the biggest drawback of not facing reality, though, is that when we avoid, we do not learn coping skills and we may become crippled from moving on with our lives. Avoidance, in actuality, means deciding to cope by not coping! Refusal to face a problem means delaying and compromising our ability to problem-solve. When we put off dealing with our problems, we may end up doing a lot of agonizing and what I call, “wallowing around in the muck.” We may remain stuck in unhappiness, cruising along without being conscious of the lives we are living, and bemoaning our plight. When I was dissatisfied with working at the university, I was afraid to face the inevitable conclusion that I had to find another way to make a living. So instead, I just kept hanging on to my ideals and telling myself that if I just did the “right” things that the system would change. I created a lot of grief and frustration for myself by not wanting to face reality. Once I was able to accept that the system was not going to change, I was freed up to be able to move on with the rest of my life. A client recently inspired me with his ability to face his difficult circumstances. He was diagnosed with a chronic pain condition that had been manageable for years. Recently, however, he had experienced several episodes where the fatigue and headaches were so bad that he became crippled from functioning for days. Facing the reality that he no longer had the energy to cope with work and at the same time have a life with his wife and children, he made the decision over the holidays to cut his dental practice by a third and to begin plans to sell his home in order to downsize to something less expensive.
I have a friend who has mastered the art of accepting things as they are and moving forward. I have watched how quickly he is able to face reality and move on. He said that some people call him a fatalist. I don’t think so. I think he is a realist who has the strength to face the world as it is whatever the situation and deal with it swiftly and effectively. There is little wallowing in the muck for him. I remember when someone robbed his studio. The next day, he announced what had happened in a matter-of-fact way and proceeded to do what was necessary to handle the situation. There was no whining, complaining or procrastination. Watching how he walks in the world, has me convinced. We create more stress than we need to for ourselves when we resist facing things as they are. And yet, it is important to be compassionate with ourselves when we are resistant and stuck. Being able to face reality often involves dealing with loss, coming to terms with mistakes that we have made, facing fears and processing painful emotions. While we may be able to learn how to do this more swiftly and effectively, facing reality is a process and readiness to do so is key.