Avoidance isn’t always unhealthy. In fact, there are plenty of times that it’s really adaptive. I want to avoid getting a parking ticket, so I move my car during the specified times. You want to avoid getting fired so you do the parts of your job that you’d prefer not to do. I want to avoid getting scratched by that mysterious cat, so I won’t bend down to pet her.
Sometimes we’ve personally experienced something that has taught us to avoid a certain stimulus and other times it’s common sense or a gut feeling. In my early twenties, I had to learn through a few different experiences that Hot Cheetos should be avoided if I wanted to side-step heartburn and a fairly sizeable stomach ache. I did not, however, have to learn through personal experience that the assignments for my Abnormal Developmental Psychology class needed to be completed and handed in on time. My instincts told me that my professor had zero tolerance for tardy assignments.
And really, it’s up to us to decide what we’re willing to endure. If you don’t mind getting the parking ticket, dealing with heartburn, or getting a bad grade, you probably won’t move your car. You’ll eat that bag of Hot Cheetos while procrastinating your assignments. We all have varying levels of tolerance to discomfort. And we even label discomfort differently. I might experience public speaking as uncomfortable, but you might label it as one of the more pleasurable ways to pass an evening. It really depends on what we tell ourselves about the experience we are having.
Avoidance becomes more troublesome or unhealthy when it gets in the way of our relationships, responsibilities, and the way we want to live our lives when it becomes our thinking-doing pattern. If I think, “Ugh, I really hate this meeting. I don’t want to go. We never get anything done, and it just goes on and on forever,” and then I skip the meeting once to stay back and get some work done, that’s not the end of the world. But I’m definitely going to want to get that thought process under control. If I constantly tell myself how much I hate the meeting and label it as something undesirable, I’m going to believe that it’s something I need to avoid. I’m going to make it pretty hard on myself to motivate when it’s time to go to the meeting. The more difficult it is for me to find the motivation to go, the more I’ll probably find ways to get out of it. That becomes a problem with both my thinking and my doing (behavior).
I’m not saying avoidance is bad or that we need to manipulate or trick ourselves out of feeling it. I’m saying we need to be curious about it. If I’m curious about why I don’t want to go to the meeting, what makes me so uncomfortable, I’ll probably learn something. I might learn that I need to speak up about it. I might learn that I can effect change by using my voice. Maybe I’ll see that I need to talk about it with my boss and we’ll both discover that my time is better spent doing something else. Upon further inspection, I might find that this is a much more chronic problem than I realized and discover that it’s time to look for a new job. If you allow yourself to contemplate why you’re often late with assignments, maybe you’ll discover that it’s because you don’t want to be in the field you’re studying. Maybe you’ll even find that you don’t want to be in school at all right now.
This is one of the gifts of avoidance. “If I don’t think about it, I don’t have to deal with it.” We can just keep skipping the meeting rather than thinking about training and searching for a new job. We can continue not to get credit for late assignments and focus on that problem instead of risking what it might be like to tell our parents that we don’t want to be in school right now. We can come home to our partner after a long day and sit in front of the TV with our phone in our hand and not think or talk about the fact that we haven’t felt very connected lately. When we avoid, we don’t have to do the thing, and we don’t have to think about why we’re not doing the thing.
I like to use mindfulness when I’m dealing with avoidance, my own or someone else’s. Give it a try. Ask yourself what you notice about the situation you are avoiding. What’s it like to do it? What’s it like to avoid it? What are the sensations associated with both? What does it mean to do the thing you are avoiding? And what does it mean to avoid it? What meaning are you making out of the sensations? How are you labeling them?
Bringing a little mindfulness is a good start to hearing what your avoidance is trying to tell you. You deserve to know.
Love and Be Loved,