What Can Avoidance Teach Us?

Avoidance can be a very powerful coping strategy. We all do it – we avoid and we ignore. We try to push it away. It can work quite well in the moment. If it wasn’t so effective in the moment we wouldn’t use it so often.

So why do we avoid?

In the moment, we experience a temporary rush of relief from having to actively engage with whatever is causing us discomfort in the moment. It is that temporary rush of relief that keeps us going back to avoidance again and again – even when it might not be in our best long-term interest.

We often think that if we avoid for long enough then the thing we’re avoiding might go away or fizzle out eventually if given enough time. The reality is moreso like a metaphorical pot that’s on a constant slow boil. Eventually if we put enough things (re emotions or things we’re avoiding) in the pot, the pot will boil over. When the pot boils over people might notice experiences of increased feelings of anxiety, depression, sadness, overwhelm, difficulty coping, tearfulness, panic, stress – a whole host of generally uncomfortable feelings.

What types of things do we avoid?

Typically people find themselves avoiding anything that activates any type of discomfort in our emotional or physical bodies. Check in with yourself. Is there something that causes some type of discomfort for you? Chances are you experienced some type of avoidance with that either currently or in the past. Still not sure what you might be avoiding – some of the top contenders that contribute to experiences of avoidance might be vulnerability or intimacy with others, fears of being wrong, or feeling like a failure, confrontation with others, saying no or setting boundaries.

So, what do we do about this?

That’s where therapy or your own personal work and self help comes into play. Through therapy or personal self growth work we learn how to slowly take the things we’ve been avoiding out of our metaphorical pot, and actively cope with them, so then we can heal and move forward with our lives. In doing this we might experience some amount of discomfort or anxiety, however, it is typically temporary, and not quite as overwhelming or all consuming as when the emotional pot boils over.

Overcoming avoidance is an active change strategy. It is not something that will happen if just given enough time or thought. You have to actively want to change this, and develop alternate strategies to use in its place.

Where to start?

What’s one thing your life currently you find yourself avoiding? Is it setting a boundary with a good friend or family member? Perhaps avoiding opening up and sharing feelings with close friends, relatives, or romantic partners? Spend some time reflecting. When you’re ready, pick one thing you’d like to work on more actively addressing rather than passively avoiding. Then ask yourself, “What’s one thing I can do today to change things?” Maybe it’s reaching out to a friend to ask them if they want to hang out. Or perhaps it’s letting a work colleague know that actually you can’t take on a new project because you already have your hands full. Or maybe letting someone close to you know that you felt hurt by a recent comment they made.

Whatever area it is you choose to work on, whatever action item it is that you choose to do today, embrace it. Go for it. In the words of William James “To change one’s life: 1) Start immediately. 2) Do it flamboyantly. 3) No exceptions.”