Monday, June 22, 2020

What are you pretending not to know?

 

If you work in psychological circles long enough, you hear all the clich├ęs pretty quickly. Almost all branches of psychology have some version of the “magic” or “miracle” question. 



 (Some version of "Suppose tonight, while you slept, a miracle occurred. When you awake tomorrow, what would be some of the things you would notice that would tell you life had suddenly gotten better?"). There are lots of established ideas about the importance of letting yourself feel feelings instead of suppressing them. Lots of information in any kind of therapy can be gleaned by asking people how they have coped with what’s happened to them.



But we’re not here to talk about any of that today.



Because recently I came across the question in the title here. What are you pretending not to know? 




I’ve been thinking about it ever since. I’ve used it with friends a number of times recently and gotten everything from puzzled stares to hour-long answers.




What are you pretending not to know?

 



Here are some common ones.


  1. My partner and I haven’t been intimate in months. I feel like we have fallen out of love and neither one of us is talking about it.
  2. Although I promise myself I’ll get around to it one day, I have neglected my health for decades. If I don’t prioritize it soon, life as an older person will be full of sickness and pain.
  3. My parents are getting old and I barely talk to them. They will be gone someday soon. Why aren’t I calling them and spending more time with them?




Perhaps if you are still reading, you might be wondering why I would be pointing out such depressing information.




Because I firmly believe it might be the most important question we ever have to answer. 




Many of the niceties of modern life require the telling of some little white lies. We tell people we are “fine” when really, we are anything but. We construct carefully crafted versions of ourselves on social media letting people know we are “fine.” We have a small-talk script that kicks in whenever someone asks about our work or family or relationships. 




Fine. Everything is fine we say.




But I have come to believe this contributes to self-deception which over time can become deeply entrenched. The little white lies we tell others soon become part of a much larger narrative around what we are pretending not to know.



I’m taking mine one at a time now. I started with my teeth. For years I was pretending not to know that if you don’t floss and regularly visit a dentist, bad things will eventually happen. Painful things.



I had a difficult and shameful conversation with my dentist shortly afterward. But I feel better now.



I would encourage you to ask this question and really reflect on the answer. I know the health piece certainly applies to me, as does the one about staying in touch with family. I suspect that many of these answers for people would be about personal relationships.



The point is, we put ideas out of our heads when they are uncomfortable. It’s protective. Who wants to think about unfinished business all the time? And yet, our brains hate unfinished business. It's called the "Zeigarnik Effect."




On the other hand, our emotions are always providing us feedback in one way or another about the things we want to change. Here are some examples.



Emotions always communicate:


  • Bitterness shows you where you need to heal, where you’re still holding judgments on others and yourself.
  • Resentment shows you where you’re living in the past and not allowing the present to be as it is.
  • Discomfort shows you that you need to pay attention right now to what is happening because you’re being given the opportunity to change, to do something different than you typically do it.
  • Anger shows you what you’re passionate about, where your boundaries are, and what you believe needs to change about the world.
  • Disappointment shows you that you tried for something, that you did not give in to apathy, that you still care.
  • Guilt shows you that you’re still living life in other people’s expectations of what you should do.
  • Shame shows you that you’re internalizing other people’s beliefs about who you should be (or who you are) and that you need to reconnect with yourself.
  • Anxiety shows you that you need to wake up, right now, and that you need to be present, that you’re stuck in the past and living in fear of the future.
  • Sadness shows you the depth of your feeling, the depth of your care for others and this world.




This has been a helpful guide for me as I think about all of the ways I might be denying things I need to know. We are gifted and cursed with an extraordinary feedback system. Being uncomfortable can be a positive thing when we examine these feelings closely and try and figure out what our guts are trying to tell us.



And as for me? I have another dentist appointment on Friday. I have been pretending not to know this all week, but in the end, I know the problem isn’t going away. I can take a little pain now. Some bad dentist jokes. A couple of sharp needles.



But no more pretending not to know.