What Are You Avoiding?

Avoidance. We all do it, whether it’s keeping away from someone or not doing something. What are you avoiding?

Sometimes we change the subject when it drifts into awkward territory. Other times we talk around hard topics. Or we put off that tough task.

Avoidance is a coping mechanism. Sometimes it’s helpful. Like when we see a downed power line or a snake.

It’s an inheritance from our evolutionary biology. Our nervous system gives us powerful signals to avoid danger, thus increasing our chances of survival. Avoidance is natural.

Truly, there is nothing more common, routine, and human than
avoiding discomfort, uncertainty, or the potential of ‘bad news.‘”
– Dave Ursillo, author

But this coping mechanism can be overused and become maladaptive. We avoid too many things, too often. Things end up getting worse, not better.

We avoid too many things, too often.
Things end up getting worse, not better.

There are two types: cognitive avoidance (when we divert our thoughts away from something, as when we’re in denial) and behavioral avoidance (when we move to keep away from something, or when we avoid acting, as with procrastination).

We often deploy both types of avoidance in difficult situations, and we’re not fully conscious that we’re doing so. It can become programmed behavior.

 

What We Avoid

There are many things that we tend to avoid, including:

  • uncomfortable thoughts or feelings
  • pain
  • discomfort
  • conflict
  • uncertainty
  • difficult people
  • hard realities (e.g., problematic health diagnosis, unwanted breakup, not meeting performance expectations)
  • challenging tasks
  • difficult conversations (e.g., about money, problems, a poor performance review, death)

Our avoidance may make things easier now, but over time things can fester, making them much worse over time.

 

Why We Avoid

We avoid certain people or things for many reasons, from biological to psychological and social. Here are some of the main reasons:

  • It feels easier to avoid certain things than to deal with them.
  • Sometimes avoiding something hard feels like a better choice than acting and possibly failing.
  • We feel afraid of certain things (like inadequacy, looking bad, imperfection, disappointment, shame, embarrassment, failure), so we avoid them.
  • When we avoid someone troubling or something difficult, we sometimes believe we can avoid the stress and anxiety associated with it.

Most of these reasons and beliefs don’t hold up under scrutiny.

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

The Problem with Avoidance

Avoidance is the best short-term strategy to escape conflict,
and the best long-term strategy to ensure suffering.”
-Brendon Burchard, best-selling author

Here are some of the main problems with avoidance. It:

  • leaves the core problem(s) unaddressed
  • can aggravate anxiety because we’ve allowed things to deteriorate further
  • can be very frustrating to others (e.g., spouse or partner), and make things worse for them too
  • leads to new conflicts
  • becomes a vicious circle, leading to more avoidance and attendant problems
  • can become a way of life, a bad habit pattern
  • undermines us by taking away our power and agency
  • can feed and validate the fears that we were trying to avoid, making it self-defeating
  • may lead to numbing behaviors like drinking, overeating, over-exercising, binge-watching, overwork, and more
What you resist not only persists, but will grow in size.”
– Carl Jung, Swiss psychiatrist

 

How to Stop Avoiding

So what to do about it?

First, note that, in some situations (like the end of an important relationship or work project), we do in fact need time and space to heal. It’s not avoidance to give ourselves room for that.

Here are 14 strategies for how we can reduce or stop maladaptive avoidance:

  • Recognize our avoidance behaviors—but without beating ourselves up over them
  • Seek their root causes (continue asking why until there’s no deeper why)
  • Engage in relaxation and self-care activities such as deep breathing, meditation, yoga, gardening, art, or journaling
  • Get support from a friend, mentor, therapist, and/or coach
  • Process emotions by talking them through with someone or journaling
  • Divide the problem into smaller, more manageable chunks
  • Start with an easy task to get momentum and small wins
  • Give ourselves motivations, such as rewards for accomplishing tasks
  • Reframe a situation to note the positives and avoid focusing only on the negatives
  • Change our inner monologue, quieting the negative self-talk
  • Practice communication skills, including assertive self-advocacy and what author Susan Scott calls “fierce conversations
  • Set deadlines and goals to commit to action by a certain time
  • Build action and proactivity habits, training our brain and helping us become a “doer” (see my article on “The Incredible Benefits of Being Action-Oriented and books like The Power of Habit and Atomic Habits)
  • Recognize that doing something we’ve been avoiding can feel amazing, giving us a sense of agency, accomplishment, momentum, and confidence

 

Final Thoughts

We’ve seen here that avoidance, while natural, can make things much worse. It can lead to frustration, anxiety, new conflicts, bad habits, numbing behaviors, and a loss of confidence and agency.

Much better, then, to work at recognizing our avoidance tendencies and systematically eliminating them. The problems won’t go away on their own, so why not deal with them directly?

 

Reflection Questions

  • What have you been avoiding lately?
  • Are there deeper issues underlying your avoidance?
  • Which of the 14 strategies for reducing or stopping avoidance will you try?

Wishing you well with it!

 

 

 

Gregg Vanourek

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Postscript: Inspirations on Avoidance and Action

  • “Avoidance coping causes anxiety to snowball because when people use avoidance coping they typically end up experiencing more of the very thing they were trying to escape.” – Alice Boyes, PhD, author, The Anxiety Toolkit
  • “It is not fear that stops you from doing the brave and true thing in your daily life. Rather, the problem is avoidance. You want to feel comfortable so you avoid doing or saying the thing that will evoke fear and other difficult emotions. Avoidance will make you feel less vulnerable in the short run but, it will never make you less afraid.” – Dr. Harriet Lerner
  • “Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage. If you want to conquer fear, do not sit home and think about it. Go out and get busy.” – Dale Carnegie
  • “The most difficult thing is the decision to act, the rest is merely tenacity.” – Amelia Earhart
  • “The price of inaction is far greater than the cost of making a mistake.” – Meister Eckhart
  • “Do not wait; the time will never be ‘just right.’ Start where you stand, and work with whatever tools you may have at your command, and better tools will be found as you go along.” – Napolean Hill

 

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, speaker, and coach on personal and leadership development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (called “the best book on leadership since Good to Great“). Take Gregg’s Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), check out his Best Articles, get his newsletter, or watch his TEDx talk. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

The Common Traps of Living: Which Are You In?

face and hands being buried

We all want a good life. To be healthy and happy. We want to love and be loved. To have experiences, enjoy comforts, and do certain things before we die.

All well and good. But too often we focus on what to do to get the things we want in life—and not enough on what not to do.

That’s where the common traps of living come in—the things that inhibit us from leading the life we want.

We all fall into traps in life. All of us. Moms. Dads. Leaders. Professionals. Interns. Students. Retirees. Geniuses. Dopes.

We all fall into traps in life.

Photo by Christopher Windus on Unsplash
photo by Christopher Windus on Unsplash

The point is not to beat ourselves up for not living perfectly. Nobody does.

Rather, the point is to recognize the traps we’re in—and get busy climbing out. Too often, we go through long stretches of our lives caught in several of these traps, yet pretending like all is well when it’s not. The sooner we address them, the better.

Common Traps of Living

Below are 22 common traps of living, based on my research and work with people in the U.S. and many different countries. As you read through them, note which ones have affected you.

  1. Clarity (lacking): being uncertain about your purpose, values, vision, aspirations, goals, or priorities.
  2. Climbing Mode: focusing so much on moving up the success ladder that you lose touch with other important things (like health or relationships).
  3. Comparing: measuring yourself against others and judging your worth by how you stack up.
  4. Conforming: following the crowd and fitting in with social conventions instead of blazing your own path.
  5. Disease of More: focusing on accumulating ever-more things, money, or accomplishments to try to be happy.
  6. Drifting: getting carried along by the current of outside influences instead of steering to where you want to go.
  7. Fear: holding back or not trying important things due to fears about failure or threats to image.
  8. Feeling Behind: feeling that others are racing ahead of you with more clarity or success.
  9. Golden Handcuffs: feeling chained to a job you don’t like due to the money, security, or prestige.
  10. Identity: having your sense of self wrapped up too much in work or how you’re perceived by others.
  11. Limiting Beliefs: mindsets about yourself that hold you back (e.g., that you’re not smart or good enough).
  12. Losing Yourself: feeling consumed by events or others’ priorities, surrendering your agency, initiative, or sense of self.
  13. Margin: always being “on” and running from task to task without downtime.
  14. Negative Self-Talk: inner dialogue that makes you feel flawed, unacceptable, or not enough.
  15. Perfectionism: setting unrealistic expectations for yourself or others or needing things to be flawless.
  16. Postponing: deferring plans or dreams because it’s not practical or “the right time.”
  17. Pretending: wearing a mask for others and impersonating someone you think is more appealing.
  18. Responsibility: not being fully accountable for your choices, behaviors, and results.
  19. Self-Deception: hiding the truth from yourself about your true feelings, motives, or circumstances.
  20. Self-Doubt: lacking confidence or questioning your capabilities and potential.
  21. Settling: accepting significantly less than what you want or deserve.
  22. Short Game: failing to invest in the future and deciding important things without considering the long term.

Which traps have you fallen into? Are there any which are particularly pressing now?

Photo by Tom Chrostek on Unsplash
Photo by Tom Chrostek on Unsplash

While this is a long list of common traps, there are many more. I’ve identified about sixty traps that inhibit us from leading the life we want.

See my new Traps Test to find out your top traps—and then get to work on climbing out of them.

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

Reflection Questions

  • What are your top traps?
  • And what will you do about them, starting today?

P.S. – This always works best when you talk it through openly with others. We all fall into traps in life. We all have work to do. So get busy with the important work of intentional personal development. Reach out if you think I may be able to help.

 

 

 

 

Gregg

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Postscript: Inspirations on Traps of Living

  • “We are all broken. That’s how the light gets in.” -Ernest Hemingway
  • “In school we learn that mistakes are bad, and we are punished for making them. Yet, if you look at the way humans are designed to learn, we learn by making mistakes. We learn to walk by falling down. If we never fell down, we would never walk.” –Robert T. Kiyosaki, Rich Dad, Poor Dad
  • “There is more to learn from mistakes than from successes.” –Richard Branson, entrepreneur
  • “Freedom is not worth having if it does not include the freedom to make mistakes.” -Mahatma Gandhi
  • “It was one thing to make a mistake; it was another thing to keep making it.” –Jodi Picoult, Handle with Care
  • “Smart people learn from their mistakes. But the real sharp ones learn from the mistakes of others.” –Brandon Mull, Fablehaven
  • “Being broken is what makes us human. We all have our reasons. Sometimes we’re fractured by the choices we make; sometimes we’re shattered by things we would never have chosen. But our brokenness is also the source of our common humanity, the basis for our shared search for comfort, meaning, and healing.” –Bryan Stevenson, social justice activist

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, speaker, and coach on personal and leadership development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (called “the best book on leadership since Good to Great“). Take Gregg’s Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), check out his Best Articles, get his newsletter, or watch his TEDx talk. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!