You might try to deny it, but all of us are guilty of denial in our lives and mostly to our detriment.
Denial is often rooted in fear — fear of facing or accepting some reality — often a reality that brings about unwelcome change. But denial does so much harm to our personal and professional growth and development, and even to our health, that I’d like to take another opportunity to discuss it.
I recently spoke with well-respected psychoanalyst and psychiatrist (and my good friend), Dr. Stefan Pasternack, on the subject of denial at the recent American Psychoanalytic Association conference in New York.
Stef and I were catching up on our lives, which brought us to a discussion of our health and the health of our loved ones. This prompted Stef to remark on the ability for people with heart disease or high cholesterol to manage their condition rather effectively with prescription drugs, as well as with healthy diet and exercise options.
In other words, much of what we know about heart disease now, whether it is hereditary or not, can be managed pretty effectively with a competent doctor and a willing patient.
So, why are so many Americans still dying of diseases that can be effectively treated and managed?
To quote Stef directly: “The No. 1 cause of death in the U.S.A. is an emotional problem called denial — a maladaptive defense so people skip their colonoscopies and annual physicals, eat the wrong stuff, don’t exercise, smoke, drive too fast and have unsafe sex — all caused by denial. This denial can lead to heart attacks that could have been prevented or minimized, to breast and other cancers that are found too late.
“(All of this) hit me one day when I was treating a high-powered Washington, D.C., lobbyist who was referred to me in the mid 1990s by his cardiologist. This gentleman had already had three separate emergency heart stents because of coronary artery disease. He could not stop smoking, would not diet and continued to eat super fatty food at all the high-end parties he attended. If he didn’t change his behavior he might have a fatal heart attack. It was a hard battle to get him to overcome his denial, face his fear of death, and stop kidding himself about it. I then realized how many patients I saw who were in denial about one problem behavior or another.
“The same logic applies to the country as a whole. If our leaders don’t straighten out the budget and remain in denial by continuing to spend beyond our means, we will have a national emergency. Denying a problem only causes that problem to get exponentially worse. Our national debt is a case in point.”
Heart attacks happen in an instant, but more often than not the physical conditions that led to the heart attack took years to develop. It’s important that we honestly assess ourselves on a daily basis with particular focus placed on the aspects of our lives that can be labeled “unsustainable.” This is an important element of my analysis when working with clients and organizations.
One of my mentors, my cousin Mike Caruso, taught me that most problems have a trajectory, a speed and a mass. In order not to suffer from the human condition of denial, try candidly assessing your health, your proclivities and even your thoughts and habits in this context.
If you become aware of some aspects of your life that you know aren’t sustainable, that have the wrong trajectory and are increasing in speed and mass, consider facing them head on.
Think about why you haven’t yet faced them, and open yourself up to all of the good that could come about (as well as the bad that could be avoided) if you made some changes. If this seems too difficult to do alone, find someone who can help you.
If life is a journey, try the path that leads from denial to realization to action, and you just might find yourself in a better place.
Special thanks to Dr. Stefan Pasternack, M.D., DLFAPA, psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, for his insight. I couldn’t have said it better myself.
Author, speaker, business advisor and Trenton native Joe Caruso is an expert in the psychology that drives people’s thoughts and behaviors. He resides on Grosse Ile. For more information on Joe and the Caruso Leadership Institute, visit www.caruso-leadership.com. For more of Joe’s writings, click the “blog” tab on his home page.