Psychiatrist to Jackie Mason: “We are here to understand your unconscious.”
Mason to psychiatrist: “My unconscious is none of my business!”
– From “The World According to Me”
Have you ever noticed a mole on your body that looks like it might have changed? You get that creeping feeling of anxiety, promise yourself to call a doctor, and next thing you know it’s a week later and there’s that mole all over again. And maybe another, and then one more, until you can no longer deny its unsettling presence.
When we first see that mole, most of us flash ahead to the worst-case scenario: cancer, pain, even death. Too much to deal with, so it goes away.
As comedian Jackie Mason clearly understood, denial serves a purpose: It protects us from being overwhelmed by our emotions. Sometimes it can help us cope with crisis.
My daughter recently required emergency surgery on a disk in her cervical spine. After some initial panic, I found myself in “high function” mode, arranging for transportation, second opinions and everything else while also caring for my frightened child. I didn’t look like I was scared half to death, and I wasn’t. I was in denial. I felt no fear at all – until the surgery ended successfully and I got home and fell apart.
So in the short term, denial can be a good thing. Effective denial keeps the nightmare at arm’s length, and can keep us going through crises.
In the long run, however, denial can be dangerous, even life-threatening. Because buried feelings are buried alive, the longer they are submerged, the bigger they feel and the harder we have to work to keep them at bay. Eventually, much of our life is about running from these emotions.
Last year I saw for consultation a 28-year-old married woman who was beside herself with worry over her family. Her 35-year-old brother was living with their aging parents, and he was out of control with drugs. The parents refused to acknowledge the severity of the problem, saying it wasn’t that bad and he would get over it. Then her brother was convicted of burglary and sent to prison. When I saw the parents for the first time, the father was distraught and confused about how this could have happened. The mother just cried as she found herself in the middle of the nightmare she was trying to avoid.
In the case of my daughter’s surgery, I was lucky. Once the threat passed, my mind and body felt safe enough to experience all the emotions I had during that time. For others, the threat continues to grow until they are forced to deal with it – the mole that doesn’t go away, the son who ends up in prison.
So how do we manage this business of denial? By definition, we cannot know everything that’s in our unconscious. But we sure can feel it. A friend once complained she felt like her demons were always nipping at her heels, and she didn’t know what to do.
I advised her to just sit down. She had been abused as a child and spent much of her life overcompensating for all the painful emotions that lived inside. Sitting down, quietly, purposefully, was a first step toward being able to simply feel what her body was asking her to feel. It’s impossible to deal with our nightmares when we keep them behind our backs.
And then there’s Jackie Mason. His denial served him very well. After all, the byproduct of denial can be chronic anxiety and hyper vigilance, and it helped him make a nice living!
Unlike him, however, I think the unconscious is our business. And so are all the emotions it produces – fear, anger, sorrow, and on and on. We can never know everything that’s in there, of course, but imagine the freedom of no longer being afraid to find out.