If you ask me, one of the biggest emotional defense mechanisms we utilize today is avoidance. Avoidance by nature means simply not wanting to take action or think about something because it makes us feel uncomfortable or disconnected.
Today’s world is beyond hectic, there is no doubting that. With the amount of stimulation we are constantly surrounded by in our day-to-day lives, avoidance sometimes seems like the most natural choice. But how does living in a constant state of avoidance serve us? How can we better understand our day-to-day avoidant behaviors as something that could possibly be hindering our quality of life?
Benjamin Franklin once said, “Don't put off until tomorrow what you can do today.” It might seem to have been easier to cope during Ben’s time without social media and mass media helping to distract us at any given minute. Though our cultural landscape has changed dramatically since Big Ben’s life, avoidance was still a challenge within his lifetime. I’m sure that there were many things that triggered avoidance in him, however, he was able to clearly see avoidance and its potential to be harmful and dangerous. Thankfully, he was capable of identifying his avoidance, and of working through it. As one of the most visionary inventors and politicians within our history, we can also count him as having been emotionally intelligent. What a concept!! A politician with emotional intelligence!
Avoidance, like most things in life, can be described and measured by observing it on a spectrum. Some of the most common things we avoid such as paying bills, returning a phone call, or going to work can be minor to some people but debilitating to others. When a case of avoidance occurs in an individual’s life there are often major personal and professional ramifications. In more chronic cases, Avoidant Personality Disorder may be potential diagnosis.
What is Avoidant Personality Disorder?
According to the DSM, someone who is diagnosed with Avoidant Personality Disorder has a “pervasive pattern of social inhibition, feelings of inadequacy, and hypersensitivity of negative evaluation”. In addition to this foundational context, someone who is struggling with APD will meet a minimum of four of these six patterns:
Avoids occupational activities that involve significant interpersonal contact because of fears of criticism, disapproval, or rejection
Is unwilling to get involved with people unless certain of being liked
Shows restraint within intimate relationships because of the fear of being shamed or ridiculed
Is preoccupied with being criticized or rejected in social situations
Is inhibited in new interpersonal situations because of feelings of inadequacy
Views self as socially inept, personally unappealing, or inferior to others unusually reluctant to take personal risks or to engage in any new activities because they prove embarrassing.
Again, I think it is important to reiterate that APD is a spectrum disorder. An individual may have one of these features or may perhaps exhibit all seven.
Again, from the DSM: "Many individuals display avoidant personality traits. Only when these traits are inflexible, maladaptive, and persisting and cause significant functional impairment or subjective distress do they constitute Avoidant Personality Disorder." Whether or not we meet the criteria for the formal diagnosis, any and all of us can struggle with avoidance.
Why Do We Avoid? And How Does It Affect Our Mental Health?
So, why do we avoid? I wish I could come up with an easy answer. I personally know the pitfalls of avoiding things, but I’m also familiar with the feelings of empowerment that come from overcoming avoidant habits. Both of these feelings are real for many of us and we are constantly emotionally negotiating between them. I may not have the answers when it comes to why we avoid, but I do have some ideas about how we can avoid less, while showing up within our lives with more mindfulness and purpose.
I believe one of the major reasons why we avoid is that we are often struggling with issues of self-esteem or self-worth. Having difficulty accepting and loving ourselves seems to be a huge contributing factor when it comes to why we avoid and allow ourselves to keep avoiding.
My unique experience as a therapist has shown me directly how avoidance can increase anxiety, depression and emotional fatigue. Addiction is also very much linked to avoidance. Both researchers and recovering addicts are seeing how deeply rooted feelings of avoidance may lead to accelerated addiction patterns.
One of the most common issues I help to treat is anxiety. When exploring a client’s anxiety, more often than not I uncover a source of avoidance within their lives. When we decide to avoid, we are also deciding to possibly invite greater anxiety into our lives.
Again, if we are inherently struggling with our self-worth, we will often fall back on avoidance. In many ways it is the work towards self-acceptance and self-love that will help us to recover from avoidant habits and lifestyles.
How Can Avoidance Be Treated, and How Do We Foster Compassion For Those Who Are Affected?
Psychotherapy is perhaps one of the best forms of treatment available to those who are finding that avoidance is an overwhelming element within their lives.
Psychotherapy can help an individual to not only gain self-awareness about their avoidant behaviors, but also to learn how to approach those behaviors differently while re-aligning themselves with healthier and more loving messages.
Some of the most challenging work within the psychotherapy setting can be feeling vulnerable when it comes to learning more about yourself. Shedding light on the wound by talking is not only an act of courage but also an act of self-love.
For those who are affected by someone close to them who is highly avoidant, I understand and feel your frustration. Often when someone is suffering we are quick to blame them or even ourselves. This cycle must end, because it is not productive or sustainable. Instead of feeling victimized by avoidance, we can advocate for compassion and the desire to understand why someone might be suffering. Avoiding to a chronic level is suffering, and fostering compassion for others is our only hope towards having a better connection with those who are suffering.
As I have mentioned, avoidance on all levels has the potential to be dangerous. There will always be things that we will be likely to avoid, and we often minimize the choice we make in avoiding. If there is anything I want you to take away from this blog is that inevitably we will avoid things, but despite this we can still become more conscious and mindful. Yes, we will avoid, but how can we avoid less? How can we challenge ourselves to understand our avoidance of certain things?
Once I finish this blog, my next item of business is going to be paying a parking ticket that I received while stopping for a quick iced coffee. Of course I was annoyed about the ticket, and frustrated with myself. However, I choose to see this as a lesson where I am not only taking responsibility but also practicing non-avoidance. If I don’t pay it now, I know there may be more consequences later. As a wise person once told me… “You can pay the check now or later… no matter what, you’re going to have to pay!”
Additional Reading Resources about Avoidance
Avoidance Doesn’t Work- Making Life Better
Anxiety and Avoidance
The Essential Guide to Overcoming Avoidant Personality Disorder