A SPECIAL NOTE FROM POSITIVELY POSITIVE PUBLISHER AND CO-FOUNDER, ERIC HANDLER: Terri Cole is one of Positively Positive’s top weekly contributors, and she has become a very close, personal friend as well. Every week her blogs move, inspire, and touch so many people. I personally donated to her sister’s cause to raise money for her medical expenses, and you can as well (anything helps). If you can’t offer anything financially, simply sending blessings, prayers, and positive energy her way can be just as powerful. Please read Terri’s story below and CLICK HERE for more details on how you can help Terri’s sister, Tammi. 

I was incensed.

I was going to make them listen to me. I was going to take on the insurance company, whose exclusions were pushing my sister Tammi and her family close to bankruptcy just when her main priority needed to be staying healthy and keeping her spirits up, not stressing about how to pay the rent and definitely not considering postponing the transplant process because she “has to work” so her family of six can stay afloat. I called advocacy groups and the attorney general. I hounded congress people and town councils. I spewed and ranted, threatened and blamed. I was furious and stayed that way for the better part of this year.

Finally, a few weeks ago, I was driving home when it hit me like a ton of bricks. My oldest sister has liver cancer and four children.

My beloved sister Tammi, who taught me to love old school R&B, how to shave my legs, and which boyfriends were jerks, might die soon. Despite being at the top of the transplant list, it’s a delicate matching and waiting game. I pulled off the side of the road and sobbed until there was nothing left. The pain in my chest and throat had become excruciating.

I had been using anger to mask my fear and sadness for the past nine months since she was diagnosed. This was the first time I cried.

I am a two-time cancer survivor. When I was diagnosed, I was petrified; not only for myself but more for how my family would handle my situation. Tammi, much like me, worries about everyone else and is a caretaker at heart. The first thought is how will they handle the news. Also, like me, when something happens to a family member, we are the first to go full throttle to “fix” it.

Now, the shoe was on the other foot. Tammi was sick, doing whatever needed to be done to single handedly fix the situation, while I was single handedly going to fix the country’s broken healthcare system and her situation in the process.

Reflecting on my reaction of the past nine months, I recognize that I was employing the psychological defense mechanism known as displacement. Displacement involves dealing with stress by transferring strong feelings about one situation onto another (usually less threatening) situation. In my case, I was transferring my fear, sadness, and, at the time, hopelessness regarding my sister’s cancer diagnosis onto trying to fix the nation’s healthcare crisis. I think we can all agree that the healthcare system needs some work (ok, maybe more than “some”), but the depth of my rage was extreme to the situation, which is usually the telltale sign that something else is going on unconsciously.

Displacement is a mid-level ego defense that inhibits your awareness of what you are really feeling. Just like other defense mechanisms, displacement keeps potentially threatening ideas, feelings, memories, wishes, or fears out of your conscious awareness. This diminished awareness can affect your ability to relate to others. For me, my angry obsessing definitely negatively affected my ability to relate to others, most notably my amazingly patient husband, Victor.

This anger makes us feel empowered rather than afraid. However, as I learned in school, humans are like chimney flues—no matter how much paper you stuff down the flue to try to stop the smoke, that smoke will find a way out. Our feelings are like smoke. I was stuffing the flue as fast as I could, and it worked for a while (hence my angry response and mission to personally overhaul the healthcare system in America), but its effectiveness is temporary.

These types of defense mechanisms yield optimal adaptation to stress because the false sense of empowerment they lend maximizes feelings of well-being and does not interfere with your conscious awareness of feelings, ideas, and consequences.

There is, however, a cost for keeping your authentic feelings under wraps. Not honestly assessing a situation and handling it appropriately leads to constant low-grade anxiety, which, as we know from all the research on the effects of stress, results in sleeping problems, being short tempered, and feeling overwhelmed by once “easy” situations. A lot of energy is required to keep the charade going, so it’s no wonder I felt inexplicably exhausted.

Only when I honored my fear and sadness was I able to openly and honestly discuss the cancer with my sister and her family and truly support them. Once I acknowledged the truth, fear no longer had a hold of me. Now, instead of harassing the White House receptionist, I am spending my time researching and creating a medical expenses website to raise funds to alleviate some of the financial burden my sister’s family is experiencing. Creating the website and giving my sister the gift of relief is productive and adaptive!

Sometimes it’s complicated being a therapist and a human.

I can theoretically understand what is happening, but putting that knowledge into practice can still be challenging. One thing I love about this amazing journey called life is that we never stop growing. Life school is endless, which means everyday provides opportunities to do it better, learn from mistakes, and continue to evolve. All experiences increase our ability to feel gratitude. Each moment is a gift and a privilege, even the painful ones.

How can you allow your fear to inform rather than dominate you? Do you find yourself reacting similarly in tough-to-handle situations? Have you figured out how to check in with your feelings and be honest rather than throw up defenses? What do you do to ensure that? Please share your experiences. 

Terri Cole, founder and CEO of Live Fearless and Free, is a licensed psychotherapist, transformation coach, and an expert at turning fear into freedom. A cornerstone of Terri’s practice, meditation, was the impetus for her recently released guided mediation CD “Meditation Transformation.” In Fall 2012, she will begin hosting a Hay House radio show, giving listeners who are swimming upstream easy tools to flip over and float. Terri can be found on her websiteFacebook, and Twitter.

*Photo by *¦·sindorella·¦*.