Why do we avoid reality?
It’s not because we’re weak, or invested in self-deception, or delusional. Though sometimes we are all of those things.
Mostly we avoid reality because it can be painful, and we’ve been very effectively sold a myth that tells us that we can avoid the pain of reality if we refuse to acknowledge it.
It’s not a totally crazy idea, in fairness.
It’s absolutely the case that our cognitive and emotional reality is largely constructed by our patterns of focus. For example, steadfastly refusing to dwell on certain thoughts can drastically reduce their ability to upset us. This is the basic skill that cognitive therapy teaches: picking and choosing our thoughts in order to be more effective in life.
However, as we learn to take greater control of our patterns of thinking and focus, it’s important to make a distinction between picking and choosing which thoughts to emphasize and deemphasize on the one hand, versus slipping into denying and disowning of reality on the other hand.
Being intelligent about our focus means learning to critically evaluate our thought patterns for distortions and patterns that simply don’t serve us. Research into the thought patterns of people who suffer from chronic depression, anxiety, and trauma disorders suggests that emotional misery is often triggered and perpetuated by thought patterns that are unrealistic, self-downing, overgeneralized, and needlessly pessimistic.
That said: learning to control our focus via cognitive therapy is always in the service of reality testing. That is, it’s only helpful to the extent to which it takes us closer to the reality of the world.
Some people like to “control their focus” in such a way that takes them away from the reality of the world.
That’s where we run into trouble.
Emotional relief that depends upon the denial of reality is only a short-term fix— and not much of one, at that.
Life can be painful in ways that are completely un-distorted by our thoughts.
Everyone experiences loss, failure, disappointment, and unfairness.
These experiences may be painful, and the pain they cause us is NOT caused by our distorted or disempowering patterns of focus…they cause us pain because they’re fundamentally painful experiences.
When we’re confronted by pain that is NOT the result of our maladaptive thinking, trying to bend over backwards to avoid that pain by reusing to acknowledge it almost always ends up causing a great deal more pain.
Refusing to acknowledge reality seriously grates on our self-esteem. It’s virtually impossible to like and respect someone when they chronically live in a state of denial— even if that someone is us.
Refusing to acknowledge reality robs us of opportunities to develop and practice healthy coping mechanisms. How can we ever expect to develop resilience and perspective if we never have the opportunity to practice or use those qualities?
Refusing to acknowledge reality denies us realistic opportunities to solve problems. After all, how can we solve problems we refuse to admit even exist?
It’s not the case that we should never use this tool of focus control that cognitive therapy teaches us to diminish the impact of painful situations. Of course we should adjust our focus in order to make it more likely that we can life an effective life, and part of living an effective life involves controlling the balance of pleasure and pain in our lives such that we’re able to function well.
But it is the case that we need to constantly be on guard against using this powerful tool of focus control to avoid reality completely.
Managing reality is not the same as avoiding reality.
Managing pain is not the same as avoiding pain.
Learning that difference isn’t always easy— but it’s an essential part of healing.
Subscribe to the Doc’s free weekly email newsletter and never miss a blog or social media post!