The Dark Art of Pretending You Are Fine
Consistency is more important to me than how much progress I make
Several years ago, I landed on a documentary on TV. I can’t recall much about it, but I remember an important scene.
The documentary was about hidden ailments that people often walk around with for years. The scene I’m referring to featured a man in his sixties, who talked about how he walked around with a violent headache for five or six years.
His wife told him to get checked but he always said, “It’s fine. No one ever died from a headache.” (Depending on the headache, it could be a symptom of serious illnesses). Eventually, the headaches became worse and he gave in to his wife’s advice.
The guy had a brain tumor. “Turns out things weren’t fine at all. I learned my lesson,” he said. And he almost paid the price with his life. In the documentary, they showed how lucky he was to survive.
He had about the same chance of survival as winning the lottery. People who go through an experience like that usually don’t live long enough to talk about it.
Stubbornness and paranoia
I know a lot of people who are stubborn like that. I used to brush off everything like that as well. “Oh, I’m fine!” That’s the favorite saying of a person who’s stubborn when it comes to physical and mental health.
But no one is fine every day of the year for the rest of their life. We all go through mental and physical winters. Sometimes we’re not fine. But a lot of us keep pretending we are.
In his book, Get Out of Your Own Way, the psychiatrist Mark Goulston talks about the counterintuitive nature of acknowledging pain.
He writes, “Admitting to yourself that you are upset or in pain can make you feel exposed. You fear that acknowledging a bad feeling gives it more power. The pain might get worse. You might not be able to tolerate it.”
When you have negative emotions, your first response is usually to downplay them or to run away. But as Goulston argues, “the opposite is usually true: recognizing a feeling releases pent-up tension and makes you feel better rather than worse.”