March 20, 2008

Taming and Befriending the Elephant

You've heard the expression, "There's an elephant in the living room"? That purported pachyderm represents something huge that everyone knows about, yet no one wants to call attention to, for fear of setting off a stampede.

Most of us learn to pretend there's no elephant when we're very small. Maybe one parent is alcoholic, or having an affair. Big sister throws up after dinner, little brother seems blue lately, but "it's just a phase kids go through." We don't talk about these things, especially outside the family; we fear we could rock the boat, and lose our "happy" home.

Later in life, there may be other issues we're reluctant to acknowledge. If we're trying to keep status quo, we can end up not simply with an elephant in the room, but with bats in the belfry.

"This marriage isn't working, but we have to stay together for the kids, and pretend everything is okay for their sake."

"I'm sure everyone is aware there's something amiss at the office, but I'm not going to be the whistle blower; we all need our paychecks."

"Yeah, I did notice the bruises. She said she fell downstairs. Well, of course she seemed shaken, wouldn't you?"

Why do we pretend something is okay when it isn't—or, in extreme cases, that it doesn't even exist? Some possibilities:

1. Shame. What a terrible thing for the elephant to be here!
2. We believe so strongly that the "elephant" shouldn't be there that we can't even recognize it as an elephant.
3. If we see something as a problem it means we're "negative" or "unevolved."
4. We believe that if we told the truth, we could hurt someone.
5. Acknowledging a problem might cost us something (money, a relationship, reputation, peace in the house).
6. Maybe if we wait long enough, the problem will go away by itself.

Meanwhile the elephant is taking up a great deal of space. It trumpets loudly, it eats a lot, it's creating a mess, and there's always the possibility that it could get loose, run rampant, and stomp or smother us to death. This elephant feeds, not on peanuts, but on fear. Eventually, it may grow so large that we can no longer pretend it's not in the way.

That's a good thing...because the best way to handle an elephant in the living room is not by ignoring it. If it won't leave by itself (and trust me, it won't as long as there's something for it to feed upon), it's far more effective to recognize the elephant as an elephant and proceed from there.

The elephant is no larger, wilder, or all-consuming than our thoughts about it.

©2008 by Carol L. Skolnick; all rights reserved.

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