How common is this interchange? We hear it all the time. Certain clues or signals point to a possible problem, but we don’t want to see them. We certainly don’t want to talk about them. We don’t even want to think about them. It’s as if we feel that dragging a problem up into the light of day will somehow give it a reality that it lacks while languishing in the shadows.
We human beings are wired to protect ourselves. This can take the form of defense against outside threats. But we are quick to protect ourselves against threats from within as well. We do this by resolutely refusing to allow an inchoate sense of unease to take solid form in our minds. By ignoring clues and dismissing hints. By simply refusing to “go there.” As far as we’re concerned, everything is fine. And, if it isn’t, it soon will be.
Fear is a powerful motivator. It’s fear that prompts us to shove things into the shadows. The fear of discomfort, of pressure, of change. As long as we do not acknowledge a reality, it lacks substance. Give it a name, and it suddenly takes on bones and flesh.
So we practice what psychologists call avoidance. The steps may vary, but the dance is always the same. Don’t go there. Don’t rock the boat. Don’t even think about it.
The first line of defense is denial. There’s nothing wrong! Never mind that you’ve been walking around in a fog of depression or a fever of anxiety for so long that you’ve forgotten what it’s like to feel comfortable in your own skin. Never mind that your child seems to have recently undergone a whole personality change. Never mind that you and your spouse haven’t exchanged a civil word in months. Everything is okay… because I want it to be.
If someone close to you is concerned enough to press the point, denial may not work. All the signs that you’ve been ignoring are forming up in the shape of a huge signpost, with the arrow pointed directly at the problem you so staunchly refuse to admit is there. Maintaining that “nothing is wrong” may not serve to put off a really persistent relative, friend or therapist. Eventually, it may not even be enough to silence the little voice inside you that you’ve been so determinedly trying to drown out. It’s time for a diversion.
Diversions work this way: instead of dealing with the primary problem, you deflect attention away from it and toward a different and much more minor one. For instance, instead of discussing your deteriorating marriage, you complain about the stains you can’t seem to get out of your husband’s shirts. Instead of taking a long, hard look at your child’s sad or angry or furtive face, you worry about how he’s outgrowing his shoes so fast. As for looking inward at the landscape of your own emotions, that’s so uncomfortable that it calls for a whole new level of diversion. In fact, diversion may not be enough.
The next level is distraction. Playing games, chatting on the phone, listening to music, losing yourself in a steady stream of riveting books… anything except turning the microscope of your attention onto the painful feelings or the ominous hints that are clamoring to be noticed. As long as the problem remains in the shadows, unexamined, it doesn’t have to be real. You don’t have to deal with it. You’re safe.
Except that you’re not. Problems don’t go away simply because you don’t want them there. When something is out of whack in your life or in the life of someone you love, looking the other way won’t do a thing to fix it. You want to be safe from trouble, but trouble doesn’t care about your safety. It demands a solution. Ignoring that demand only deepens the trouble and makes it ultimately harder to fix.
Why does a person persist in denying, ignoring or otherwise looking away from an unsavory reality? Part of the answer is fear. We don’t want to examine a possible problem too closely, lest it turn out to be something really significant and scary. Ignorance, as they say, is bliss. But that dubious bliss is short-lived. Ignoring a problem doesn’t make it go away. It only makes it more problematic.
The other reason we try to sidestep the need to look squarely at trouble is emotional laziness. Giving something a name means that it exists. It is real, and thus, it must be dealt with. As long as we continue to tiptoe around the edges of that unsavory reality, we can pretend that it isn’t there. We can pretend that there are no hard decisions waiting to be made, no hard work waiting to be done, no minor or major upheaval waiting in the wings.
It’s hard to understand how such a pretense can possibly provide comfort, but it does. What you don’t know about won’t hurt you. Or so we fervently hope.
In lieu of looking a problem right in the eye, we resort to a variety of interesting mental and emotional machinations. One of these is wishful thinking. We literally try to wish away the problem’s existence through the sheer force of our hope. Willpower is wonderful, but not even the strongest will has the ability to wish away reality. If something is, wishing that it isn’t is less than useless.
Another mind trick we use to avoid tackling uncomfortable issues is called magical thinking. Even if we are ready to admit that some sort of problem exists, we cling to the hope that it will somehow, magically, disappear on its own. Without any intervention or the lifting of a single finger, the problem will get up, brush itself off, and mosey on down the road to bother someone else.
This policy of “do nothing” can legitimately be tried up to a point: occasionally, a problem does eventually resolve itself on its own. But when that point has been reached, when it becomes clear that the problem has dug in its heels and has no intention of vanishing, passive inaction is anathema to solving the problem.
Very often, the problem evolves gradually enough to give us time to grow used to it at each developing stage. As pain and dysfunction become “the new normal,” we can forget how life can be and ought to be. We forget how our child used to laugh spontaneously at nothing and everything, how our relationship with our spouse once brought us such joy, how we once faced life with serene equanimity. The new normal wears an air of inevitability. It feels eternal. If we can hardly remember a different past, how can we picture a different future? And picturing a different and better future is exactly what we need to motivate us to do the necessary work to change the situation.
People, by nature, resist change. Even desirable change. But sometimes change is desperately needed. Instead of using our willpower to try to wish away an unpalatable reality, let’s use it to face the issue squarely, tackle it with the help of caring others, and address our hopes to the only One who has the power to alter reality.
Because looking the other way never solved anything.