I’m upset. I know I shouldn’t be, but I am. Actually, I’m mad at myself. Why? The most emotionally charged of all reasons, at least for me: money. I stuck with a conservative investment strategy and, in a year when making 10 or 20 percent was a no-brainer, my portfolio did squat.
I’ve been beating myself up over this for days. It’s affected my mood, my happiness, and now, worst of all, my ability to work. That’s right. On top of everything else, I have writer’s block.
It isn’t the first time my brain refuses to function and it certainly won’t be the last, but the only thing that works is to get it out of my system, so that’s what I’m doing. Do I feel badly about inflicting this on you – an unsuspecting reader who clicked on the link hoping to read something useful, inspiring or at least marginally entertaining?
Not one bit, for the simple reason that, before this shrink session between me and my keyboard is over, I will have delivered the goods, at least on two of the three fronts. What can I say? My work ethic is stronger than any masochistic tendency to publicly flog myself for being a dumbass.
This is me, delivering the goods:
Over the course of your life, you will have any number of episodes just like mine. And there’s a very good chance you haven’t figured out how to deal with them yet. I know that because it wasn’t long ago that I hadn’t, either.
In years past, when something upset me – I mean really upset me – I’d try to ignore it. Make believe it never happened. Out of sight, out of mind. It wasn’t exactly a logical decision but an emotional one. Or, rather, one born of emotional denial. Actually, I was ignoring my feelings. I was living in denial.
There are three things about denial I bet you don’t know. They’re important, so pay attention.
1. Denial is caused by hiding from something that scares you. For example, I grew up relatively poor. My dad, who felt terribly guilty about that, worked tirelessly to ensure we had an opportunity for a better life. He also drummed into us the importance of financial stability. I’ll always be indebted to him for that, but when I make bad financial decisions, it hits me hard.
2. It doesn’t just affect you; it affects everyone close to you. It affects those you love and those who depend on you, including your stakeholders at work. And not in a good way. It’s probably one of the main reasons why marriages fail. Careers and businesses, too.
3. Denial is remarkably common among highly motivated people like executives and business leaders. The reason, I suspect, is that the mechanism that drives us to achieve great things is the same one, more or less, that allows our conscious mind to escape from things that scare us. That mechanism, compartmentalization, is a double-edged sword.
Compartmentalization is how doctors can cut you open without becoming emotionally affected. It’s how soldiers, police officers and fire fighters can perform their duties without hesitation. It’s also how a CEO can stand up in front of a boardroom and give a killer presentation just minutes after finding out his wife left him. We all compartmentalize to some extent.
But compartmentalization can also be problematic, especially when you’re not aware of it. I’ve watched far too many executives destroy their careers and their companies because they wouldn’t or couldn’t face the cold hard truth. Today, I can see myself – the way I used to be – in those people, and it’s a constant reminder that the hardest problems to face are the ones that mean the most to us.
When something goes terribly wrong, our minds have a powerful mechanism for making believe it isn’t happening. But it is happening. And like a wound that’s never allowed to air and heal, it festers. Ultimately, it becomes toxic.
Don’t be a denial denier. Whatever your emotional blind spot – money, love, success, failure – have the courage to face it. You’ll still get upset, maybe even angry, but at least you’ll know why. And each time you have the strength to face reality head-on, it becomes that much easier to deal with.
Whew, I feel so much better now. What do you know; it works.
Image marilyn d. via flickr.
An earlier version of this originally appeared at entrepreneur.com.