There’s a Rhinoceros in the Living Room

Published: November 30, 2022
Category: FamilyMental HealthMind/Body Well-BeingStories

Recently, I heard someone use the expression, “There’s a rhinoceros in the living room that wrecked EVERYTHING and everyone is pretending it is a coffee table!” This idea illustrates the way we can often be in denial of a big, rhinoceros-sized problem—even if it’s staring right at us. It also reminds me of the curious fairy tale The Emperor Has No Clothes. This fable of the naked royal illustrates just how far the mind can go to deny things. In fact, the fairytale brilliantly shows how adults can often wrap themselves in layers of denial until they can no longer see what’s right under their noses. It’s not surprising in the story that it takes an innocent child to blurt out the obvious fact that the pompous, haughty emperor is prancing through the streets without wearing a stitch of clothing!

The feeling of denial originates from an adaptive place where our brain is just trying to be helpful by lessening the initial impact of a trauma. In this way, according to experts at the Mayo Clinic, “being in denial gives your mind the opportunity to unconsciously absorb shocking or distressing information at a pace that won’t send you into a psychological tailspin.” 

However, STAYING in this place of denial is not a healthy or helpful long-term strategy. Chipping away at denial—acknowledging the rhinoceros in the room—helps us to live life as our truest, most authentic selves. As we travel through each year, our grief, loss, or trauma can shift in subtle or obvious ways. Being “open to being open” allows us to experience all of our feelings and move through them. Anniversaries and holidays are universal triggers that can bring our disappointments, loss, or challenges to the foreground.

What happened to me this year was markedly different than in the past. I started experiencing mini crying jags in early October. Hmmm, that’s strange, I thought, Nothing’s wrong. But my body sensed that the calendar was approaching October 8, which would have been my younger brother Gary’s 60th birthday. Instead, in 1998, he died of an asthma-induced heart attack at age 35. While walking through Central Park, I was deeply moved as the Autumn leaves shifted from green to red, orange, amber, and yellow. Intellectually I appreciated that nothing had actually changed. Gary was still physically no longer with me. Yet, I sensed the deep sadness of the loss of what could have been. I mourned what our lives would have been like if Gary was physically still alive instead of existing as a deeply held presence in my heart and consciousness. I walked my way through this painful time, grabbing onto some proven tools which fortify me. 

  • I was as self-compassionate as possible to both the little-girl Lisa and also the adult Lisa who fiercely loves her brother. 
  • I shared my feelings with close friends and my therapist, who listened and validated my experience. 
  • I took many warm baths.
  • I cried when the tears appeared without trying to rationalize them away or stuff them into a deep recess of my consciousness. 

As the Autumn leaves were creating vibrant rainbow canopies throughout the park, I simply felt my feelings and kept walking. As I began the second lap around the Great Lawn, I noticed the 800-pound rhinoceros galloping away, receding into the horizon, at least for the time being.  

I’m sending you strength and love.

Soaringwords is the power to heal


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