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.
One thought on “Denial II: The Down Side”
Dear Laura, I really like your blog and the topic of it, Laura. Important stuff! You have all my empathy for the incident. With your physical difficulties, it is indeed extremely scary to fall and realize how fragile we really are. I also had to learn to be cognizant of how/where I walk and I also came to it “kicking and screaming”. And reading your words actually reminded me also that here, living in a hill town with cobble stones, I have to learn to be always aware. It’s totally annoying, I agree—but it is a reality that we’re both facing even though it is in different ways and circumstances. We’ve had quite bit of snow here this week (my next “storie” is about ready—fair warning: it’s long!), and as much as the ancient palazzi and towers called and pulled me outside, I did so sparingly and extremely carefully. The cobble stones were snow covered and due to a little rain followed by sub-zero temperatures they were also icy. And crutches have rubber tips, i.e., they slip! And a couple of times, as I bravely went outside, I had a couple of people I know come up to me and help me walk over to my coffee shop. I’m so blessed here; people are very kind, supportive, helpful toward me. 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. SO very true! It’s also true that painful emotions are not fatal—once we acknowledge them (those parts) they tend to settle down. Have you ever noticed? Feelings are just temporary chemical changes in your brain…Fighting them or suppressing them doesn’t change the chemistry. Acknowledging them, and asking them what they need, however, will change them because it changes the chemical composition. The science behind that (CBT theory) is that (automatic and often “subterranean”) thoughts release certain chemicals that the limbic system interprets as a feeling. And based on those feelings (positive or negative is a subjective interpretation based on experience, training, and habit, etc.) we then act (or not) in certain ways. And most of the time, our subsequent behavior then creates another thought following by another chemical reaction to the limbic system—and on and on. Please keep writing! It helps me recognize so many things on so many levels. And while our individual experiences are very different, we do share a history of suffering and having to adapt to new physical realities. And reading your thoughts helps me remember my own parts and helps me be more compassionate with myself and others. THANK YOU! Un abbraccione (a big hug) Eve