So yesterday I was going along through my over-scheduled life, when I carried a bag of prescription cat food across the vet’s parking lot. Focused on opening my car trunk, I failed to notice the curb and a second later I was falling, my knee banged into said curb, and I landed unceremoniously on the ground, panting through the incredible pain.
Glenn was by my side in a moment, worried and eager to help. After we maneuvered me into the car, I quickly embraced denial as a strategy. Glenn quite reasonably wanted to take me home for ice and elevation of my leg, while I preferred to pretend it was nothing and continue on with our plans to meet my parents for dinner. I figured that my pants weren’t ripped, so it couldn’t be that bad, once the initial blast of pain had dulled.
I have written previously about the upside of denial, and I stand by my conclusion that facing some medical diagnoses or procedures with some degree of denial rather than full, conscious awareness of all their horrific elements, can be a functional approach to facilitating adjustment and coping.
But this is not that type of story. This one illustrates the down side of denial.
I got my way, we had a lovely dinner, and by the time we got home, my knee was so swollen and painful that Glenn had to support me every step of the way to our bedroom. And today I had to cancel all meetings and classes for the entire day to keep my banged up knee iced and elevated while I gulped anti-inflammatories.
I admitted sheepishly this morning that denial is my preferred strategy in the face of all medical drama, and Glenn said dryly, “Yeah, I know. I’ve learned a few things about you over the years. I tried to get you to go home, but you were being you, so…” He shrugged.
Denial is almost always my first-line coping strategy. I can’t say for sure whether skipping dinner in favor of immediate icing would have left my knee in better shape today than it is, but it is quite likely that it would have helped.
This time denial was not a functional phase of coping; instead, it was a step toward making my knee worse.
Yet I admit that in the same circumstances, I would almost certainly make the same choice again. With all of my extensive formal education, it is reasonable to ask how I can be so very dumb. Why do I embrace denial in circumstances where it makes the situation worse?
Clinical psychologist Mary Lamia offers a helpful insight. She suggests that it may not be reality that people in denial are rejecting—in this case, the fact that my knee was clearly badly bruised and swelling—so much as we are ignoring the truth of the feelings that we have about a particular reality.
Yeah, that sounds about right.
What did I feel when I smashed my knee? Dismay at the pain, anger at having my busy routine disrupted, embarrassment at falling, fear that a serious injury to my one remaining knee would make my already complicated life as an amputee untenable.
I was, and remain, utterly uninterested in experiencing those feelings. Hence the denial. Do I know better? Sure. But when those emotions wash over me, I just want them to go away as quickly as possible.
As I sit on my couch with my knee elevated and iced, I can admit that denying “all the feels,” as my students say, is ultimately a bad idea. As long as I deny them, I can’t process and release them.
And unlike the swelling in my knee, no amount of ibuprofen—or any other substance—will ease the swelling of painful emotions that are denied. Ouch.