Cheryl Richardson: Undoing Denial
Body+Soul, May 2008
On the morning of the first day, she would offer the following greeting: "Welcome. I'm glad you're here. I want to start our work together by telling you something important. Ready?" With the attendees quietly awaiting her message, she'd look directly into their eyes and say, "No one is coming to save you."
Once she delivered this line, she'd remain silent and watch the reaction. People would look around, smile at each other, or chuckle self-consciously. Then, as she allowed the silence to grow, the reality of her statement would sink in, and they'd shift nervously in their seats. As she explained to me that day over lunch, this discomfort reflected the fact that, on a deep, often unconscious level, most of us long to be saved.
I often think back to this as I read the requests for help I get from readers of this column and members of my online community. Many struggle with the kind of issues I've had in my own life -- financial hardship, illness, loss. The people writing frequently feel stuck, unsure of what to do, and overwhelmed by the enormity of their problems. Their stories touch on a variety of life challenges, but a similar theme runs through them: Many have waited too long to face reality.
It's not uncommon to avoid the truth. Whether the challenge is an abusive parent, an unexpressed passion, or a financial free fall, difficult situations require difficult actions -- and many of us don't take these steps, either because we don't know what to do or because we're afraid. This lack of know-how or fear lulls us into a comfortably numb existence. We might even live in a fantasy world, believing that things will somehow miraculously change on their own. Or we secretly wait for a benevolent mom or dad to step in and make things better. While this denial might make us feel safe, it also keeps us stuck.
Here's the thing, though: Reality has a way of catching up. We may suddenly panic about how we'll save for retirement, for instance, on our 50th birthday when the fact of aging hits. After years of ignoring a marital problem, we may feel overwhelmed by it once the kids leave the house. I've seen the result of this denial time and again in the frightened eyes of clients who waited to job hunt until they were laid off -- even though they'd known for many months that the company was in serious trouble.
Regardless of your current predicament, here's what you need to know: Your point of power lies in the moment you face the reality of your situation, when you stand up and admit, "I'm 30 pounds overweight. It's affecting my health, and I just can't live like this anyÂmore"; "My spending is out of control, and I need to do something to protect my family's financial future"; or "My children are more important than my stock options, and I need to spend more quality time with them." All positive change begins with this first step: acknowledging the truth.
Stop for a moment and think about a situation you're living with right now that you keep avoiding. Do you need to get a physical exam? Are you living like a roommate with your spouse? Are you ready to finally leave your overÂbearing boss behind? Don't wait for the panic to set in. Reclaim your power to improve your life right now with the following three steps.
Step 2Seek Wise Counsel
Step 3Do the Tough Stuff
Patience, tenacity, the ability to sit with uncomfortable feelings, the willingness to face fears -- these are some of the tough ingredients we need in our quest for a rich, satisfying life. They're the skills of a grown-up, someone who takes full responsibility for her choices. When you question yourself, when you begin to fear change, or when you lose steam (and you will), lean on the guidance and support of your wise counsel to help you stay the course. Remember, you're not just building a great life in this process. You're also building character.
In the end, recognizing that no one's coming to save you may be hard, but embracing this message is your ticket to freedom. When we release ourselves from the grip of denial, we open the door to truth -- and if there's one thing I know for sure, it's that all great things start there.