Stuff often comes up in therapy or personal development work that we’re not quite sure how to handle.
We remember stuff of which we weren’t consciously aware before.
We come face to face with habits and tendencies we don’t particularly like.
We realize we have to change patterns and give things up that we can’t IMAGINE changing or giving up.
Not infrequently, the stuff that comes up during therapy or personal development work is so overwhelming or off-putting that we have no idea what to do about it. We don’t like that it exists; sometimes we can’t imagine how to even go forward with our everyday lives if what we’re discovering is true.
It only takes one or two brushes against this kind of stuff to want to opt out of therapy or personal growth altogether.
Very often we’ll have a part of ourselves telling us that it’s easier to just deny and disown whatever’s coming up than it is to accept it and embrace the changes we have to make.
We want to stuff it all down— out of sight, out of mind, we figure.
Once we know something, it’s really, really hard to un-know it.
Moreover, once we know something, our attempts to un-know it are usually destructive to our self-esteem, our values, and our goals.
When we realize something in therapy work, we really don’t have the option of walking it back…no matter how badly we wish we did.
How do we deal with that fact?
First thing’s first: you need to know that nothing that comes up in therapy, no matter how upsetting, no matter how shocking, no matter how angering, can hurt you more once it’s known, than it can when you’re unaware of it.
Put another way: consciously “knowing” even a very upsetting fact cannot hurt you.
An important or upsetting fact, however, remaining unknown to your conscious mind can hurt you a great deal.
Why? Because when something is important or weighty, the effort of not “knowing” it— that is, the psychological effort involved in keeping it out of your conscious awareness— can get exhausting. It takes effort to not know what you know. And that effort detracts from everything else you might want to do with your mental and emotional resources.
It strains and drains you to not know what part of you knows.
You’re not doing yourself any favors by denying and disowning it— no matter how upsetting “it” seems to be.
Once we realize that our efforts to keep upsetting things outside of our awareness are counterproductive and destructive— once we realize that it is essential to our goals, values, and self-esteem to “know what we know”— then it becomes a matter of strategizing to use our skills and tools to HANDLE consciously knowing what we know.
Which tools and skills we use depends on the nature of what we’ve been keeping out of our awareness. We need to choose the right skill for the right job.
Much of the work I used to do with patients involved what is called “trauma processing.” “Processing” is a widely used, but little understood (and frequently misunderstood), term that means coming to terms with what things mean and imply in our lives. When people experience psychological trauma, they are often at a massive loss for how to process the meaning and implications of what has happened to them, so they just choose to “not know” it, force it out of conscious awareness, through a process called “dissociation.”
Many patients have asked, at one point or another, why dissociation is harmful. If something that happened to me is so traumatic that I can’t even process the meanings and implications of it, they’ll ask, doesn’t it make more sense to just not “know” it?
That’s a seductive theory, but no. Why? Because dissociating something does not mean it won’t effect you.
Losses will make you sad, regardless of whether you’re consciously aware of them or not.
Betrayals will make you angry, regardless of whether you’re consciously aware of them or not.
Pain will make you fearful, whether you’re consciously aware of it or not.
Don’t get me wrong: I completely get it. Knowing painful stuff is a drag. No one wants to embrace the fact that they’ve had awful things happen to them, or that they need to end a relationship, or that they need to make a scary, effortful change in their life.
But if you need to process a loss or make a change, believe me: that fact will not go away if you ignore it.
In fact, it’ll just get bigger, uglier, and more exhausting.
Knowing what you know is sometimes hard.
But the alternative is way, way harder. In many, many ways.
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