I once had a friend tell me “The secret to successful aging is the acceptance of letting go.” When she first said that to me, I thought the view rather defeatist and depressing, but I could not help but ponder on the idea. Not only did I eventually accept the idea as truth, I realized this skill could apply to a variety of things we must deal with in life.
The phrase “letting go” seems to imply that we are giving up something that is rightfully ours. That we are accepting defeat, thus we must be losing something, and who would want to accept that? However, what my friend was trying to convey is that we must be successful in letting go of denial.
Jennifer Kunst, PH.D., put it this way in her article “Denial: It’s Not Just a River in Egypt.” http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/headshrinkers-guide-the-galaxy/201108/denial-its-not-just-river-in-egypt
“… problems in life come when we use denial too extensively, too rigidly, too intensely. It is one thing when we bury our head in the sand for a day or two because we feel overwhelmed, but it is another thing if we make a lifestyle out of it—denying awareness of important things for too long. For a short time, it may be safe to ignore the squeaking brakes on our car, the IRS letter that arrived in the mail, the rash on the breast, the emotional distance of a loved one, the nagging feeling of guilt, the weather report about the upcoming storm. Often, such things resolve themselves; no harm, no foul. But if those important bits of information about important things grow and persist over time, denial could be the kiss of death.”
That’s not to deny that denial is also a useful skill that protects our sanity and helps us cope with the many demands of reality. Yet there comes a time when this coping skill must be rejected “let go” for our well-being. Recognizing when that time has arrived is difficult for most of us to do; often our friends and family see it before we do.
However successful aging means we get better at knowing when we need to let go. Then we can improve our health, our happiness and even live safer longer lives. Knowing when we need to give up the keys and no longer drive our own car can save us money, frustration, and embarrassment; it may also save our life and the lives of others. It’s not an easy decision, but if we let go of denial first then the process of letting go of the keys is easier. Knowing that we have some medical issues that are preventing us from doing tasks that we have always done is different than accepting that we need help doing those tasks. The negative thoughts that we “should” be able to do those things or that we are “less than” because help is needed are symptoms of denial. By embracing denial, we are at risk of putting ourselves in danger. In contrast, by “letting go” of denial, we reduce that risk and we free ourselves up to do other things. This is the secret of successful aging.
But as I said earlier, learning how to “let go” doesn’t just apply to aging. It a skill all of us can use to liver happier healthier lives. Often family caregivers deny they need help in caring for a parent to the point that they sacrifice their jobs, marriages, time with friends and kids, and their physical and mental well-being. According the Alzheimer’s association, “Alzheimer’s and dementia caregivers had $9.3 billion in additional health care costs of their own in 2013. Nearly 60 percent of Alzheimer’s and dementia caregivers rate the emotional stress of caregiving as high or very high, and more than one-third report symptoms of depression.”
Numerous studies and statistics show that family caregivers spend, on average, 20 hours per week for five years in order to care for a parent or spouse. It is undeniable that accomplishing this feat comes at a heavy cost, but too often family caregivers are so emotionally involved in the process that denial clouds their thought process. In short, it keeps family caregivers from taking the time to take care of themselves
In fact, emotion is always at the a base of denial so it is important for each of us to take a pragmatic view of any thought that is distressing us, whether that is giving up the car keys or getting help taking care of mom. Be willing to accept that letting go of denial and examining the thoughts that are keeping you there may help you find a healthier alternative. Ask yourself why doing (or giving up) something causes you to have thoughts that are sad, angry, fearful or depressed. In his book, “Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy”, David D. Burns, M.D. suggest writing down the emotional thought and then challenging it with a rational thought. You could also approach the problem with a pro/con list and examine all the possible benefits and consequences of continuing with how things are now. Find whatever method works for you, because on the other side of denial is a happier and healthier life for yourself and those you love.