When Your Biggest Problem Is...You
Denial Strategy #1: "Fear? Ha! What Fear?"
When I suggested to Whitney that she might be courting job loss precisely because it was her worst fear, she laughed.
"Fear? Me? No, absolutely not," she said. "I mean, I'm sorry so many people are getting laid off, but my job is safe as houses."
This struck me as an odd choice of idiom in an era when demented mortgage practices have triggered worldwide economic catastrophe. I also noticed a crimson blush creeping up Whitney's neck. Paging Dr. Freud: Dr. Freud to the floor, please.
"What if you keep shredding presentations and sending your boss e-mails about yeast infections?" I said. "What if these screwups keep getting worse?"
The blush faded abruptly; now Whitney looked pale. "Honestly, I don't see how that's possible," she muttered. "Um, could you excuse me for a second?" She pulled out her BlackBerry and peered at it anxiously.
"You seem nervous," I commented, watching her thumbs go to work.
"Well, of course I'm nervous!" Whitney snapped. "The whole damn country's falling apart—who isn't nervous?"
"So," I said, "suppose your company folds. What would you do?"
"That won't happen."
"I'm not saying it will; I'm just asking you to imagine it."
"I don't want to!"
"Seriously, what will you do if you lose your job?"
The dam burst.
"I've worked my whole adult life for this job!" Whitney cried. "And it's not like I can get another one these days. Have you seen the news? Every day it's worse—more unemployment, more foreclosures. People just like me are living in tents! My stocks are practically worthless." Whitney began trembling. "I can't lose my job," she whispered. "It'd be the end of the world."
So that cat was out of the bag. Like so many people right now, Whitney was stuck contemplating the Machine of unemployment. But she'd shoved this intense fear out of her conscious awareness, so her subconscious mind had built a counterphobic mechanism to kill the job and end the agony. "You'll thank me," her inner albino was saying. "I swear."
Denial Strategy #2: "But That's the Last Thing I'd Want."
For Olga, the problem wasn't that she was unaware of her biggest fear. Quite the contrary. She couldn't answer a telemarketer's call without blurting out her dread of losing Jack. She discussed it endlessly with Jack himself.
"I won't let him talk about anything negative—negative feelings, bad experiences in the past, even movies he doesn't like," she said. "I love him so much; I can't let negative energy into our relationship."
Of course, this bizarre practice ensured that Olga's marriage was focused entirely on negative energy (our lives tend to revolve around the things we're trying not to do). It also meant Jack had no way of processing the countless indignities Olga kept inflicting on him.
"You do understand you're making Jack's life completely impossible?" I said, with my patented anti-tact.
"I know!" Olga said, sobbing. "It's another thing I've done to drive him away, but I can't live without him!"
"So what'll you do if he leaves?"
More sobs. "I don't know; I've never dared think about it."
"If you don't think about it, you're going to have to live through it," I said. "So start thinking."
"Well," she sniffed, "I'd have to learn to live for myself, I guess. I'd have to be independent, to be..." Her voice trailed off, and her mascara-smeared eyes opened wide. "I'd be free," she said.
Whoa, Nelly! The fear she'd been hiding was an even bigger surprise to Olga than Whitney's was to her. Olga's real fear wasn't that Jack wanted to leave her. It was that she wanted to leave Jack.