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How to Fight Denial and Start Tackling Your Biggest Problems

How to Fight Denial and Start Tackling Your Biggest Problems
Image credit: JAMES WOODCOCK

I am angry. 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 eating my liver (I hate that expression too - it is gross but it so applies here) 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 now have writer's block.

It isn't the first time and it definitely won't be the last, but the only thing that works is to get it out of my system, so that is 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.

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So here's the useful part: 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 that long ago that I hadn't, either.

In years past, when something big upset me - I mean really upset me - I'd try to ignore it. It wasn't a logical decision but an emotional one. In reality, what I was ignoring was my feelings, and not just in a harmless "out of sight, out of mind" sort of way. I was doing something far more dangerous and insidious. I was living in denial.

There are three things about denial I bet you don't know. They're really important, so pay attention.

1. When you live in denial, it means you're hiding from something that terrifies you. For example, I grew up relatively poor and I'm pretty sure my dad felt terribly guilty about it. That's probably why he worked tirelessly to ensure we had a better life and relentlessly drummed into us the importance of hard work and earning money.

And while I'll always be indebted to him for that, the very idea of failing to support my family terrifies me. When I make bad financial decisions, it hits me hard.

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2. Denial 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. And I know it's a common cause of careers, businesses and companies failing.

3. Denial is remarkably common with highly motivated people such as entrepreneurs and executives. The reason, I suspect, is because the mechanism that drives us to achieve great things is more or less the same one that allows our conscious mind to escape from things that terrify us.

It's called compartmentalization and it can be a good thing. It's how doctors and veterinarians can operate and inflict pain without becoming so emotionally affected or distracted they can't perform. It's also how an executive can stand up in front of a boardroom and give a killer presentation just minutes after finding out his wife has left him.

We all use compartmentalizing to varying degrees, but it can be problematic when you're not aware of it, as many otherwise successful people are ... and I used to be.

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Years ago I ran marketing for a medium-sized, publicly traded high-tech company. The founding chief executive had done a remarkable job of growing his upstart into a highly profitable, $300 million company. That is, until the competition got rough. And by competition, I mean the industry's 800-pound gorilla that was 50-times our size.

Our CEO made one spectacularly bad decision after another, stubbornly trying to stay the course when we really had no choice but to change direction. In other words, he simply couldn't face reality. Eventually, after nearly bankrupting the company, he was fired, and that paved the way for a remarkable recovery.

Today, I can see myself - the way I used to be - in that CEO. And it remains a powerful lesson I will never forget: the problems that are hardest to face are the ones that mean the most to us.

When things go terribly wrong, the human mind has a powerful mechanism for making us believe it isn't happening. But it is. And like a wound that's never allowed to air and heal, it festers and, ultimately, becomes toxic.

Whatever your emotional blind spot - money, love, success, failure - learn 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 and courage to face reality head-on, it becomes that much easier to deal with.

Whew, I feel so much better now. See?  

Related: 10 Ways to Channel Your Inner Child

Steve Tobak is management consultant, executive coach, columnist, and former senior executive of the high-tech industry. As managing partner of Silicon Valley-based Invisor Consulting, he's been a trusted strategic advisor to executives and business leaders for more than a decade. Contact Tobak.

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