It’s apropos that my first blog post is about avoidance. I’ve just spent the last four hours working away at this website (in the home stretch – yay!), but spent probably four hundred hours before that avoiding working on this website (on a side note, if you ever want a squeaky clean house, set out to do a completely intimidating task that involves a steep learning curve).
All of this reminds me of the irony of avoidance. We avoid because we dread something. We assume that doing it will feel unpleasant. Maybe it’s a tough conversation with someone. Maybe it’s writing a paper. Maybe it’s exercise, or taxes, asking someone out on a date, or ending a relationship. We avoid, and our dread mounts. The object of our avoidance becomes larger than life. Our anxiety grows – “what if, what if, what if…?”. We humans are fairly predictable: we turn away from threat, whether it’s physical or psychological.
We all have inner critics that start yammering away when we feel ill equipped or vulnerable. When we avoid, we also (temporarily) avoid activating that critic. For example, if we fear we may be incompetent, we avoid or procrastinate on tasks that we fumble to pull off well. If we fear rejection, we may avoid dating, applying for jobs, or other situations that carry the risk of being turned down. We would likely deduce that rejection means we’re unworthy – essentially one of our worst fears as humans.
Avoidance is normal and to be expected – to a degree. But there are a few telling signs that it may be harming us. One is if our life starts to feel restricted and narrow. That’s an indication that our intolerance of uncertainty or fear of feeling weak is trumping our natural drive towards growth. Another sign, of course, is when things pile up. Unread emails, unwritten term papers, necessary conversations once again delayed.
I mentioned earlier that there is a certain irony in avoidance. That’s because the only thing that helps us cope with stressful events is…well, experiencing stressful events. Not by merely white knuckling our way through them, but by using coping strategies and turning the volume down on that demeaning inner commentary. Avoidance lets us off the hook temporarily, but then deprives us of the opportunity to make real gains in some areas of life. More importantly, we can’t learn how to stick handle those curve balls (excuse the mixed sports metaphor) that are crucial in this unscripted life.
Thus, the solution to less avoidance is to put ourselves in the very situations that freak us out. Gradually, of course. If it goes well, then we’ve just proven a negative assumption wrong. And if it doesn’t go well – for example, we get rejected, we screw up, we don’t get the job, we can’t figure out how to edit a web page and feel like an idiot – then the real work beings. We can learn how to cope with frustration, respond to that corrosive inner critic, problem solve, and above all practise compassion and patience with ourselves.
If this doesn’t come easily to you (spoiler: it won’t), you’re in good company. As a psychotherapist, I frequently work with my clients on overcoming avoidance and shifting the fear and negative inner commentary that we default to when faced with perceived threats to our ego. And as a human, it’s a work in progress for me, too.