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
- 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
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?
- 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!
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
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!