The trouble started when I stood up.
It had been a short sleep. The previous evening had included attending a charity ball with close friends, eating too much food, enjoying too many cocktails, staying up late, and even hitting the casino floor (the event had been held in the adjacent ballroom). As the group returned to the hotel we were more than a little proud of ourselves for having stayed out well-past typical early bedtimes—we’d even outlasted the live band! With a several hour drive home to look forward to, we agreed to an early departure the following day and headed off to our respective rooms.
As I awoke the next morning I took inventory of my physical state. Well-rested? No…but no worse than expected. Headache? Not really (bonus!). I felt a little stuffy, but being a longtime allergy sufferer this didn’t come as a surprise. Surely, the time spent in the smoky casino the night before was taking its toll. Deciding a hot shower would help, I got out of bed.
Sensing my new vertical position, my nose launched an all-out attack. I was unaware that it was possible for one human being to sneeze so many times within the span of a few minutes. “JUST allergies!”, I reassured myself. After all, the casino had been very smoky and the hotel probably stuffed its pillows with cat dander. I finished showering, packed, and grabbed a thick stack of tissues before hitting the road.
Several hours and several hundred tissues later I was home, preparing to attend a matinee performance of The Nutcracker. Still firmly within the clutches of what had to be the worst allergy attack of my life (It HAD TO BE ALLERGIES… surely somebody had stored some ragweed in my house while I was away) I replenished my stock of tissues, concealing them in every imaginable space my wardrobe had to offer. The performance was first-rate. The children and their magical toys danced and twirled about the stage as I sat in a whirlwind of my own sneezes and sniffles. As Clara’s Godfather magically produced flowers from his sleeve, I pulled tissues from mine, depleting one of the back-up stashes I’d hoped I wouldn’t need. As I pondered how many Kleenexes Mother Ginger could conceal beneath her cavernous dress, I conceded. I was sick.
It’s amazing the lengths we sometimes go to in order to avoid the truth. In the face of adversity, we have the ability to become masters of self-delusion. We are adept at weaving intricate narratives that support our distorted view of reality while blocking out the truth. Any unbiased observer probably could have pegged my “allergies” as a more significant issue long before I came to terms, and as I sat in line at the pharmacy I thought about how foolish I’d been to deny what was actually going on. I also realized that this was behavior I’d seen before in others—and myself.
Denial doesn’t change reality.
Admitting to myself that I was sick wasn’t all that difficult. The writing was on the wall, and accepting the fact that I had a head-cold didn’t constitute any sort of risk. For many people, accepting reality can feel like a major risk, especially when they believe that their professional or personal lives will be significantly impacted by doing so. Denial can feel very self-preserving, or even productive. We convince ourselves that if we ignore enough or manifest enough evidence to support our delusional narrative that we can create change. The truth is, despite our best efforts, denial only distorts our perception of reality—not reality itself.
To truly overcome denial, we must figure out what we’re trying to shield ourselves from in the first place.
I was once in a role that I struggled with greatly. While some aspects of my job brought me great joy, others brought frustration and sadness. For months and months, I denied that there was really a problem, yet my situation remained the same. Thanks to the help of a close mentor, I finally came to terms with what I was avoiding—admitting that I wasn’t entirely happy in my job. To do so meant that I had to face a lot of tough life decisions. Ultimately, I did face those decisions. It was a difficult path in many ways, but one that ultimately led me to where I am today, which makes me very happy.
Know that denial never really protects us. What it does do is drag us down, sap our energy, and hold us back. Figure out what you are truly avoiding, and come to terms with why.
You aren’t fooling anybody.
If improving your personal situation wasn’t enough a reason to pull yourself out of denial, consider this: Everybody else probably knows the truth already. Remember, denial distorts our perception of reality—not everybody else’s.
Earlier I mentioned that it was my mentor who helped me climb out of my own denial. What I didn’t mention was that it was she who confronted me about it in the first place. I had been sure that nobody else knew what I was feeling. So deep was my belief in the façade that I’d constructed, that I failed to notice I wasn’t fooling anybody. Rather than suppressing and ignoring my unhappiness as I intended, I was unknowingly beginning to do damage to my professional reputation. Discovering that I wasn’t effectively hiding anything came as a shock, but I’m so grateful that my mentor respected and cared enough for me to confront my denial head on. It was a conversation that truly changed my life.
We aren’t as effective at hiding our true feelings as we believe. It’s much easier to fool ourselves than those around us. That’s why living our lives in an alternate reality is so exhausting—it requires constant upkeep and energy, and in the end, it doesn’t really work.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help and support.
A lesson I learn over and over again is that people have an amazing capacity to surprise me. During the hard times in my life, and with the most foreboding expectations, I’ve always been astounded by how quickly those around me have closed ranks and provided the exact support I needed.
People are willing to help. That being said, the individuals we help must have some skin in the game—they need to be willing to work as well. Nobody wants to drag another person, kicking and screaming, into reality. But when those of us facing denial take the first step back ourselves, people recognize how difficult that first step can be, and how daunting it can feel to take each step thereafter. People will reach out a hand to help—again and again.
Don’t underestimate the support that exists all around you—in your work, and at home. Ask for help. Ask for support. Be amazed as those around you exceed your expectations.
A few weeks later, my cold is gone. I wonder though, how much more quickly could I have recovered had I not wasted precious time denying what was really happening? I challenge you—if you are facing something difficult in your life or at work, face it head on. Don’t waste your effort and energy ignoring it, or running away. If you have a cold, admit it and begin to heal. If you have a mountain to climb, take the first step. You can overcome it. You’re stronger than you think.