I couldn’t keep this thought out of my mind during a particularly rough period—strung-together days tainted by the keen awareness of my anxiety and struggles with boundaries, loss, and self-care.
I was twisted in knots and stuck. The struggles were uncomfortable—I reflexively wanted to numb them down and pull the covers over my head. With my pro-level use of denial, I had always been able to shut these feelings down in the past.
But not anymore.
Instead of blissful days spent in denial, I experienced stretches of increased anxiety, depression, and overthinking. It was overwhelming and made me question how this was supposed to be any type of progress.
Truth is, awareness should come with a warning label.
Like many things, our struggle with awareness and denial is rooted in our past. The childhood traumas, unhealed wounds, and dysfunctional family dynamics left many of us reeling. We never learned skills to cope with this pain and discomfort in a healthy way. Instead of healing, we learned to fear situations that could bring disappointment and loss.
To protect ourselves, we learned to use denial—a seductive and brilliantly dysfunctional defense mechanism—to insulate ourselves from discomfort. And without knowing it, we built our lives on fear and avoidance.
It’s true, everyone can experience denial from time to time. But some of us make it our lifestyle. We live this way because we are unconsciously grieving the feelings of unhealed wounds and loss from our past.
It’s no coincidence that the five stages of grief are: Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. If these sound familiar, it’s because many of us routinely move in and out of four of them—denial, anger, bargaining, and depression—in our daily lives.
Acceptance is different—this is what scares us the most, and keeps us stuck in the grieving process.
It scares us because we’re used to running from our pain, not sitting with it. But to heal, we’ll have to learn to acknowledge our discomforts and accept ourselves, flaws and all.
The problem is that it’s scary as f*ck. We’ve lived in denial because we never learned how to be courageous in the face of emotional risk. As children, we never learned vulnerability, empathy, and compassion—the very things that get us out of avoidance and into awareness. Without those skills, it was safer to remain unconscious, no matter the cost.
To get ourselves unstuck, we have to surrender to acceptance—acknowledge that we are perfectly imperfect, and deserving of love and belonging.
And awareness is our gateway—we must first pass through it to acceptance. Then we can clear out all of our resistance and avoidance and make room for healing and joy.
There’s no right way to do this work—some of us can do it on our own, while others need help, and that’s okay.
Here are some things to know as we transition from denial to awareness:
Awareness means sitting with our feelings.
Many of us will have to learn this for the first time, while others relearn it. Some of us will use meditation and breathwork, but we can do whatever works for us.
Sitting with feelings was super hard for me—I was a runner. I’d sit for a minute, start to feel my feelings, and my anxiety would start to ramp up—and I was out of there.
I had to embrace my discomfort and learn to sit and hang in there, wait for the feelings, and let them wash over me. It seems simple, but when you’ve been afraid of your feelings your whole life, leaning in like this isn’t easy.
We’re tearing down inner walls and deconstructing a life’s worth of self-defeating coping mechanisms. That’s tough stuff, and it’s okay if we struggle. The important thing is to practice—if we’re willing to put in the work, it does get easier.
Buckle up, it might be a wild ride.
Awareness comes with all the feels. Anxiety, fear, loneliness, pain, hope, healing, and joy. We’ll get them all, and in no particular order. They can strike like lightning or slowly wash over us. Anything is possible.
If we’ve been used to numbing our feelings, this might feel pretty wild sometimes. I’ve spontaneously burst into tears of grief, and also experienced tears of joy from healing. When it happens, we don’t have to fight it—we just ride it out and see where the feelings take us.
We can use avoidance to our advantage.
Once we begin to learn awareness, we’ll notice our avoidance—it will be painfully obvious. We’ll feel it when we’re avoiding something that’s troubling us, or when we’re afraid to stir up unpleasant feelings. This is where the path diverges—either we continue to stay in avoidance, or we lean into it and deal with it. The more avoidance we clear out, the more room we have for healing and joy.
In a perfect world, we’d slay avoidance each time we encountered it. But the world isn’t perfect, and neither are we. So, we’ll stumble and won’t do it perfectly—but it’s all good as long as we’re pointed in the right direction. Our goal is progress, not perfection.
We’ll trade our dysfunction for healthier lives.
This is why we’re doing the work. We’ve lived with denial, numbing, and addiction as coping mechanisms and ended up with highly dysfunctional lives. But we’re trying to be done with that sh*t. Trading it in for awareness isn’t an easy process, but what we get for our efforts is a lot less dysfunction in our lives.
We’ll be operating in a new way. The more we can live in awareness and acceptance, the more we’ll take care of ourselves—that means more self-trust, more self-love, and much more capacity for joy.
Even though awareness might suck sometimes, we’ve got a choice to make—will we spend our lives sitting in fear and avoidance wondering what might have been, or will we be brave enough do the work necessary to transform our lives? I’m going for it—because what waits for us on the other side just might be the life we’ve always wanted.
“I hurt myself today, to see if I still feel. I focus on the pain, the only thing that’s real.” ~ Trent Reznor