What do you do with the elephant in the room?
Before you read this article, a disclaimer: This subject may stir up some upsetting emotions. Most of us would rather put it off until we have no choice in the matter. But I’d like to pose a challenge: if you allow yourself to experience a little discomfort now, you can save yourself – and your loved ones – massive costs in the future.
So, are you sitting down?
That morning when your dad just didn’t wake up.
The time your wife had her 3rd miscarriage.
The moment the doctor walked through the door: “I’m sorry, but the test is positive. It’s cancer.”
Pause. Take a deep breath. Notice how your body reacts after reading these statements. Even though the words are just random examples, our bodies still react to them. It may just be a slight twinge in your stomach, or a knot in your throat. You may recoil, tense up or not feel much more than a general numbness.
There are certain inevitable moments in life. Moments when a few words tear holes through the fabric of reality. Moments when the air you breathe becomes a sticky, tar-like substance, and you are suffocated by the weight of an unbearable helplessness. No one wants to think about these moments. No one wants to disturb the peace. But if keeping the peace means ignoring the fire alarm, we are in serious trouble.
The cost of denial
Let me dial things back a little. Before we deep-dive into themes of illness, death and the meaning of life, let’s start with something more digestible.
You’ve been dating this girl for 3 years. She has mentioned the “m” word several times, but you just don’t know if that’s really necessary. After all, you are both having such a good time together – what would a piece of paper really change? When you meet her for lunch one day, she abruptly says: “I want to break up with you.”
At first, you think it’s a joke. In fact, it takes about 3 months of living by yourself before the reality of the breakup sinks in. It all happened so suddenly – out of the blue!
If we ask her, though, she would tell a very different story. She feels the relationship has been on a downhill spiral for at least the last 9 months. So, why didn’t you see the signs? Why didn’t she address it? Or did she?
This is what happens when we avoid the elephant in the room. Best case scenario, it tramples your furniture, worst case, your guests.
We avoid conversations about death for similar reasons that we avoid conversations about relationship strain or a suspicious symptom: it is uncomfortable. It raises questions and “what if” scenarios we’d much rather avoid. But, like a leaking pipe or slow puncture, when something is not addressed in time, the consequences can be devastating.
2 years in an unhappy relationship,
15 years in a failing marriage,
20 years in an abusive job,
a terminal illness due to late diagnosis.
Bearing the unbearable
“I don’t want to write it down – it makes it too real.”
“I’ve always just left my problems behind me.”
“But what if the doctor tells me what I don’t want to hear?”
These are some of the typical responses I get from people, when we start rubbing up against the elephant in the room. And it’s okay! Your mind and body reacts to imagined threats in the same way as it does to real threats: thinking about what the doctor might say is almost as painful as the doctor actually saying it. But these reactions can be so overwhelming, that they block us from facing, and processing the reality of life in a healthy way.
To get through these uncomfortable experiences, you need to be systematic, kind, patient and intentional.
Tools to pull you through
When you feel uncomfortable emotions arising, take a few, deep breaths. Feel your feet on the floor, and your bum against the chair. Take your attention out of your mind, into your environment: pay attention to the room, the furniture, the colours and shapes around you. This is a form of grounding and self-soothing that helps your nervous system calm down, so the emotional experience doesn’t completely overwhelm you.
If you lose a loved one, or you get retrenched, you need support from others. Make it clear to them that you are just looking for emotional support: that they don’t have to make you feel better, or solve the problem for you. They can just be there with you, hold you, listen to you or do some activities with you. Make it clear that you don’t need solutions, but that their presence and empathy is enough – that you just don’t want to be alone in your emotions. (If you don’t know anyone who can create this comforting space, you may need to reach out to a therapist, counsellor or coach).
Let’s say you need to take out a life policy, but the mere idea of death overwhelms you. Break the task into smaller steps. Allow yourself a time-box to read the documents, and then time to step away. While reading the documents, notice how your emotions may intensify. Take a few, deep breaths and remind yourself that you can leave and come back later. You don’t need to face all of reality all at once, but it would be wise not to hide from it.
Questions for reflection
- Are there areas, topics or emotions that you find too uncomfortable to face?
- How can you allow yourself to approach these in a measured, self-supporting way?
- What do you need to help you address the elephant in the room?
- Who can you ask for support in this process?
How can I help?
If you feel like you could benefit from additional support, why not book in for a FREE discovery call and learn more about how I can help.