Avoidance occurs whenever you know that there is a problem, but you choose to avoid dealing with it. We humans have a tendency to think that avoidance can be an effective problem-solving strategy. We hope that if we ignore the problem, it will go away. Except that it frequently doesn’t work out as we had hoped. What actually tends to happen is that the problem remains steadily there at best, or more likely, gets worse.
It is easy to understand why we tend to avoid certain situations, activities, people, or tasks that stress us out, make us uncomfortable, or otherwise generate destressing emotions. Nobody wants to feel bad. We are hardwired to move away from that which does not feel good to us. So, when an anxiety-provoking situation arises, we feel a pull to avoid that situation whenever possible. It makes sense. There is no reason to deliberately cause ourselves suffering.
This pull towards avoidance also tends to show up when we think of something that causes us to feel distress. To avoid distress, we simply avoid thinking about the problem. Of course, we are typically unable to do this indefinitely, but we can always put things off until the last possible moment.
When avoidance is an ineffective strategy
A coping mechanism is ineffective when it creates more problems than it solves. Avoidance has the potential to become this kind of a strategy. Because avoidance is so effective at alleviating distress, we can inadvertently begin to rely too heavily on it as a coping mechanism. Anything that alleviates distress is inherently reinforcing. We feel distress, we avoid, the distress goes away. We feel better. We avoid more.
So when is avoidance detrimental?
Here are a few examples (this list is by no means exhaustive):
- When avoiding discomfort or distress becomes the primary factor you consider when deciding whether or not to do something. Avoiding distress becomes your primary motivation; everything else takes a back-seat
- When the list of things you won’t do because they cause distress grows so long that the list of things you will do is actually shorter. The end-result is that you spend most of your time avoiding the life you want and deserve
- When you put off dealing with a problem or conflict for so long that you end up simply not dealing with it at all. The problem doesn’t go away, of course. It probably gets worse while you are busy not dealing with it
- When you avoid doing things you need to do or dealing with things you need to deal with, despite significant negative consequences for doing so
- When avoiding starts to cause conflict in significant interpersonal relationships
Avoiding things that cause us discomfort can also be an effective strategy
- If there is a certain person who consistently manages to get under your skin, it can be helpful to deal with said person as little as possible
- If you are under a lot of stress and are feeling overwhelmed, waiting until later to deal with certain problems can be the best way to preserve your emotional and psychological wellbeing short-term. Prioritization is important
- If certain places are unsafe for you to be in and you do not have to go there, then avoiding these places is completely logical
- If talking about certain topics causes relational conflicts to flare up (e.g., religion, politics, social justice issues) and there is no compelling reason to do so, then it makes perfect sense to avoid conversations about said topics
- If there are certain memories that are unpleasant to recall and cause you to feel unsafe, it can be beneficial not to recall them when it isn’t safe to do so, or when you don’t have the needed resources/supports
Please call or email Empower Counselling Services Winnipeg if you would like to work with a Winnipeg Therapist for support with dealing with unhealthy avoidance strategies. Click here for contact information.