Why we avoid & what we can do about it

We human beings are well-practiced in the art of avoidance–those moments of emotionally and mentally checking out, the times when we phone it in on our efforts to connect with others, and those instances when it feels much more comfortable to sink deep into ourselves and to hide among our insecurities than it does to take the plunge into something unfamiliar. Avoidance can be subtle and can even feel benign at times–allowing our minds to drift to social media while we write a tough email, for instance.

Our brain’s penchant for avoiding the uncomfortable parts of our life boils down to an effort at self-protection and self-preservation. However, avoidance can easily beget further avoidance, and falling into the habit of avoiding can leave our brains less primed to stay present and engaged for those important moments in our life that do throw us out of our comfort zones.

When we avoid, we aren’t doing so because the alternative activity we seek out is more appealing (although it may feel at the time like we are actively choosing to play video games late into the evening, to drink a few extra beers, etc.). Our brains are not actively seeking joy in our avoidance strategies so much as they are attempting to minimize pain and discomfort. These strategies are rooted in the parts of our brain that function automatically (and mostly unconsciously) to make sure our level of emotional arousal stays within our “window of tolerance.”

Avoidance can feel very automatic and out-of-control because the mental process the underlies it (i.e. our brains’ efforts to assuage our discomfort) is indeed automatic. Moreover, the more frequently our brains utilize strategies like avoidance to temper our emotional arousal, the lower our tolerance for highly emotional experiences becomes. Just like the muscles in our arms and legs, our brains work on a use-it-or-lose-it basis. When we do not give our brains enough exposure to emotionally vulnerable and challenging experiences, our brain’s intuitive understanding of emotional equilibrium begins to fade, and we begin to experience a feedback loop of greater and greater emotional avoidance.

This process of compounding avoidance is at the heart of people’s experiences of phobias and anxiety, as the act of avoidance results in the exchange of one type of emotional pain for another. When we avoid, we are left with a lowered tolerance for emotionally arousing experiences in the long term. In the short term, we feel the uncomfortable cognitive dissonance that presents when we avoid something we know to be important. Coping with that cognitive dissonance may even require us to employ even further avoidance, and thus the avoidant feedback loop continues.

Although avoidance is the product of our brain’s automatic efforts to keep our emotional arousal at a tolerable intensity, we as human beings have the capacity to shape both how our brain copes with uncomfortable emotions and to expand the amount of emotional intensity our brains can tolerate.

Here are a few of my favorite strategies for owning and dealing with avoidance:

1. Make nice with the avoidant part of your brain
Remind yourself that the avoidant part of your brain is doing everything it can to keep you safe and to help avert you away from intolerable experiences. Oftentimes, we learn our strategies of avoidance in childhood, when big emotions were comparatively even larger within our small bodies and when our brains were not yet fully formed in their emotion-processing capacities.

Practice having gratitude and compassion for the work that this avoidant part of your mind has put in for you over the years. For example, perhaps it kept you from having to be present for some tough fights at home growing up, or maybe it allowed you to compartmentalize some difficult emotions in order to finish up your last semester of college. The more you can make peace with this part of your mind, the less tumultuous your efforts to utilize alternative coping strategies will be.

2. Make an avoidance list
This tip is based on a concept named by Psychiatrist Dan Siegel in his parenting book The Whole Brain Child. In the book, Siegel writes about the strategy of “Name it to Tame It” to describe the process of helping children gain a sense of calm about uncomfortable and out-of-control emotional experiences. According to Siegel, applying words and labels to emotional experiences helps to engage our brain parts in ways that lower the intensity of emotional arousal.

In other words, whatever we are avoiding feels a lot bigger and scarier when it is floating around in our mind, untethered to the present reality. When we write down (or even speak out-loud) our avoidances, we label them and put parameters on them. We can own them, acknowledge them, and begin to have self-compassion about why we might be feeling avoidant. We might even notice that we feel more prepared to tackle the items on our list.

3. Have an attitude of “Let’s See”
So often, the emotional distress we feel around avoidance is compounded by our own judgement towards the things we’re avoiding. Consider your self-talk around some things you avoid. (Maybe it’s something along the lines of “I’m being lazy for not exercising four days a week,” or “I’m socially incompetent and need to put myself out there more.”) Instead of forcing expectations onto yourself, play around with what I like to call a “Let’s see” attitude in those situations where you can identify avoidance. “I’m lazy and need to get in shape” becomes “Let’s see how much exercise I can get this week,” and suddenly the judgement and shame that surrounds much of our avoidance of exercise begins to melt away.

Transforming our self-talk can transform our attitude and approach to the things in life we avoid. In shifting our self-talk, we begin to open ourselves up to experiences that disconfirm our notions of what our brains can tolerate. We begin to create the habit of showing up and being present without judgement or expectations, and we can gradually begin to loosen the hold grip of avoidance on our minds.

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