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Cheryl Richardson: Undoing Denial

Years ago, I was invited to lunch by a colleague who wanted me to meet his friend, a wise and seasoned therapist who had profoundly influenced his life. During our meal, she talked about the healing strategies she used, and I was intrigued in particular by her description of her workshops.

On the morning of the first day, she would offer the following greeting: "Welcome. I'm glad you're here. I want to start our work together by telling you something important. Ready?" With the attendees quietly awaiting her message, she'd look directly into their eyes and say, "No one is coming to save you." Once she delivered this line, she'd remain silent and watch the reaction. People would look around, smile at each other, or chuckle self-consciously. Then, as she allowed the silence to grow, the reality of her statement would sink in, and they'd shift nervously in their seats. As she explained to me that day over lunch, this discomfort reflected the fact that, on a deep, often unconscious level, most of us long to be saved.

I often think back to this as I read the requests for help I get from readers of this column and members of my online community. Many struggle with the kind of issues I've had in my own life -- financial hardship, illness, loss. The people writing frequently feel stuck, unsure of what to do, and overwhelmed by the enormity of their problems. Their stories touch on a variety of life challenges, but a similar theme runs through them: Many have waited too long to face reality.

It's not uncommon to avoid the truth. Whether the challenge is an abusive parent, an unexpressed passion, or a financial free fall, difficult situations require difficult actions -- and many of us don't take these steps, either because we don't know what to do or because we're afraid. This lack of know-how or fear lulls us into a comfortably numb existence. We might even live in a fantasy world, believing that things will somehow miraculously change on their own. Or we secretly wait for a benevolent mom or dad to step in and make things better. While this denial might make us feel safe, it also keeps us stuck.

Here's the thing, though: Reality has a way of catching up. We may suddenly panic about how we'll save for retirement, for instance, on our 50th birthday when the fact of aging hits. After years of ignoring a marital problem, we may feel overwhelmed by it once the kids leave the house. I've seen the result of this denial time and again in the frightened eyes of clients who waited to job hunt until they were laid off -- even though they'd known for many months that the company was in serious trouble.

Regardless of your current predicament, here's what you need to know: Your point of power lies in the moment you face the reality of your situation, when you stand up and admit, "I'm 30 pounds overweight. It's affecting my health, and I just can't live like this any­more"; "My spending is out of control, and I need to do something to protect my family's financial future"; or "My children are more important than my stock options, and I need to spend more quality time with them." All positive change begins with this first step: acknowledging the truth.

Stop for a moment and think about a situation you're living with right now that you keep avoiding. Do you need to get a physical exam? Are you living like a roommate with your spouse? Are you ready to finally leave your over­bearing boss behind? Don't wait for the panic to set in. Reclaim your power to improve your life right now with the following three steps.

Step 1
Tell the Truth
The first step out of denial may be to accept reality, but that doesn't mean you have to go it alone. Tell the truth to someone who cares. Call a confidant who can listen without judgment and won't feel compelled to give advice. If you've just gone through a divorce, for example, and you feel paralyzed by the thought of starting over, admit your fears to a close friend. If mounting debt is dragging you down, be brave enough to tell the truth so the healing can begin. Don't worry just yet about what you'll need to do to turn things around. The goal is to get the necessary emotional support to hold you up while you allow the walls of denial to crumble.

Step 2
Seek Wise Counsel
Once you've processed your feelings, you're ready to enlist the knowledgeable assistance you need to turn the situation around. Experienced advice can mean the difference between forward movement and the pain of procrastination -- so choose wisely. If you had a leak in your kitchen sink, you wouldn't call an electrician, you'd call a plumber. So asking your best friend for advice about getting out of debt (unless she's an accountant) isn't a good choice. Instead, look for someone who has dealt with your type of situation and can help you make a smart action plan. Call a financial planner about your money woes. Hire a career coach to get you out of a job rut. Find a good marriage counselor who'll help you heal your relationship.

Step 3
Do the Tough Stuff
Living an authentic life based on truth may require you to make hard choices. If you've been longing to leave your corporate job for a soul-inspired non­profit stint, you may need to downsize your life to afford the change. If you've always dreamed of starting your own business but don't have the cash, you may need to find a job in a similar field for a while.

Patience, tenacity, the ability to sit with uncomfortable feelings, the willingness to face fears -- these are some of the tough ingredients we need in our quest for a rich, satisfying life. They're the skills of a grown-up, someone who takes full responsibility for her choices. When you question yourself, when you begin to fear change, or when you lose steam (and you will), lean on the guidance and support of your wise counsel to help you stay the course. Remember, you're not just building a great life in this process. You're also building character.

In the end, recognizing that no one's coming to save you may be hard, but embracing this message is your ticket to freedom. When we release ourselves from the grip of denial, we open the door to truth -- and if there's one thing I know for sure, it's that all great things start there.

Need Cheryl's Coaching?
Email Cheryl, describing your situation. Cheryl Richardson is a life coach, speaker, and best-selling author of four books, including "The Unmistakable Touch of Grace."

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