Being in denial about a situation makes it hard to take charge of changing it. It’s a cliché because it’s true: Accepting that you have a problem really is half the battle.
If you are in denial about either the seriousness of your condition or the power of your ability to impact it, you limit your ability to get healthy. Committing to taking care of your health will only help if you are honest with yourself about what actually needs to happen.
The tricky thing about denial is that, by definition, we don’t realize we are in it. No matter how self-aware we are, we are almost always in a little bit of denial about any challenge. Not fully seeing how tough things are is a coping mechanism that can serve us well. When it prevents us from seeing reality clearly, however, it becomes a problem.
Martha E. Kilcoyne, author of Defeat Chronic Fatigue Syndrome: You Don’t Have to Live With It, describes different types of denial when she identifies the following three responses to having chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS; also known as chronic fatigue immune dysfunction (CFID) and myalgic encephalomyelitis). Although the issues differ for people with other long-term conditions like diabetes, heart disease, lupus, other autoimmune disorders, and some cancers, most of the same principles apply:
Response 1: What Illness?
“These people are often in denial about being sick or the need to follow any type of modified routine,” Kilcoyne writes. They forge onward, seeing doctors, but aiming to alter their routines and habits as little as possible. Rather than looking for things they can change to take care of themselves, they often view any change or limitation as allowing the illness to win. This can result in years wasted trying to hold onto a reality that no longer exists, while doing ongoing damage to their bodies and missing opportunities to explore new healing paths.
It’s understandable. When you have a new diagnosis or symptoms, it takes time to digest and accept your new reality before you can act on it. I spent a year or two in this stage myself. Don’t be like me. Try not to be stuck here too long, saying things like:
› “It’s not that bad.”
› “I can still work full-time; I just have to rest all weekend to make up for it.”
› “I’ve had to increase my medications a lot, but the side effects aren’t too bad.”
Response 2: Half-and-Half
“These patients get it, but only half the time,” explains Kilcoyne. “They see-saw back and forth between adjusting their lifestyle to get well and jumping back on the merry-go-round….” This is a step in the right direction, but these folks still find it hard to accept the amount of effort or time it may take to achieve their health goals. I spent another two years in this stage as well. It can sound like this:
› “It’s not that big a deal.”
› “I’ve been feeling good this week. I can blow off my physical therapy.”
› “Other people eat pizza. It won’t kill me.”
Response 3: Woe Is Me
“After struggling with CFS for a while, these patients accept their misfortune to have contracted CFS and seem to give in to a permanently ‘sick’ lifestyle,” says Kilcoyne. They stop actively looking for a way to get healthier and mainly figure out how to adapt to their symptoms. This may sound like acceptance, but it can be a different form of denial—denial that there is more that can be done. It can sound like this:
› “I’ve tried everything.”
› “I can’t fight this battle anymore.”
› “I don’t want to burden anyone.”
After years of trying to get healthy, it is understandable that many people adopt some variation of this last attitude. They genuinely feel like they have tried everything and have no options left. But, don’t let this be you. There is always something you haven’t tried, support you haven’t gotten, a different diet, or a new treatment to explore. Although it is hard to believe, just because the first 99 things didn’t work, that doesn’t mean that the 100th won’t work either. If this is you, try taking a break for a while from the job of “getting well,” and look into getting more support to handle the tough emotions that make it hard to keep going. Check out Practice 2, Nurture Your Heart, for ideas on how to get that emotional support.
Lastly, the medical community even has a fancy name for helping people to accept their current reality and commit to changing it: Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). In short, ACT teaches patients to:
1. Accept their health condition and their feelings about it without judging them as good or bad.
2. Commit to goals for addressing their health condition.
3. Take action toward achieving those goals.
Research has shown that these three steps can make a world of difference. Diabetes patients who used ACT reported better self-care and lower blood-sugar levels months later.
»» For Today ««
Explore where you might be in denial. Do any of the types of denial listed here resonate for you? What element of your reality can you work on accepting more fully? What support can you get?
This is the fourth in a series of excerpts from the first section, Take Charge, of my new book, Everyday Healing. To start your journey on Day 1 and read the whole book: Everyday Healing: Stand Up, Take Charge and Get Your Health Back . . . One Day at a Time please visit Amazon, Barnes & Noble or your local independent bookstore to pick up your copy today.
As always, if you have any thoughts, feedback or questions, I’d love to hear from you. Leave a comment below and let’s talk!
To your health,