How to Overcome Avoidance and Embrace Life
In May 1996, I made a decision based on anxiety that I regret to this day. The story begins two years earlier, during my second year of graduate school, when I was offered a coveted teaching assistantship at my university. The class was Introduction to Psychology, a topic I knew well.
For five semesters, I taught the course and loved it. The subject matter was interesting, the students were fun, and I felt at ease in the classroom. It is among my fondest memories of graduate school. At the end of my second and final year of teaching, the undergraduates nominated me for an award, Student’s Choice for Teacher of the Year. It was the first time in the school’s history that a graduate student was selected for this honor.
I was touched and flattered, but also incredibly anxious because I wasn’t sure I deserved that distinction. How would the faculty feel about a graduate student “stealing” their award? Although I worked hard for my students, I couldn’t imagine that I earned this more than a faculty member. I felt certain someone would realize the mistake as soon as my name was called in the huge auditorium.
As the ceremony approached, the anxiety became so intense that I decided I couldn’t attend the function. I made a poor excuse for my absence, becoming the first graduate student to be honored AND the first honoree not to attend. Just typing these words makes me cringe to this day. I have such tremendous regret about this behavior.
This was avoidance. I wish I could say that May 1996 was the last time I used avoidant behaviors to cope with my anxiety, but I can’t. For many years, I continued to avoid difficult conversations and run from intense situations. I was clever with my avoidant escape paths, and I doubt many knew it was due to anxiety. People likely viewed me as ungrateful, flaky, or unappreciative; far worse descriptors than anxious.
I’m not alone in my avoidant behavior. It is a common coping strategy. Why do we use avoidance? When we move towards a situation or conversation that is difficult, we feel increasing anxiety as we approach it. When we move the opposite direction, we feel some temporary relief from our uncomfortable feelings, but it does not last. The anxiety and discomfort are still there, and will continue to resurface until they are adequately addressed. Avoidance is a behavior pattern that only serves to steal our joy through missed opportunities and connections.
“Avoidance is the best short-term strategy to escape conflict, and the best long-term strategy to ensure suffering.”
Avoidance might sound like:
- “I blocked her phone number because I don’t want to talk to her.”
- “I’m dropping that class because the final project is a speech.”
- “I stopped going to work. I can’t work there anymore. They can fire me.”
- “I got an email from my son, but I haven’t read it.”
- “I’ll do it later.”
- “I work long hours, but it is easier than being at home.”
- “I don’t have anything to say.”
Avoidance might look like:
- Isolating or withdrawing from others
- Sleeping too much
- Being overly compliant
- Avoiding eye contact
- Drinking too much alcohol or using other substances to numb feelings
- Mindlessly staring at a screen (computer, TV, phone)
What is the cost of avoidance? For me, it has been twenty-five years of remorse because I couldn’t tolerate five minutes of anxiety to walk across a stage and receive an honor. Twenty-five years is a heavy price to pay. For some, the cost of avoidance is much higher. People have lost relationships and careers due to avoidant behavior. It is prominent in many behavioral health conditions , including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and can destroy life satisfaction.
If avoidance is a coping strategy that is stealing your joy, it’s time for a change. Step one is recognizing your avoidant tendencies. From the list above, have you heard yourself saying similar statements or engaging in comparable behaviors? Next, acknowledge the emotions behind your avoidance. How are you feeling? What are your thinking about yourself, your abilities, or other people? How will pushing through the discomfort help you long term?
Instead of choosing the path of least resistance, face the situation, conversation, or person head-on. This doesn’t have to be a confrontation, but it is a form of exposure. You acknowledge the anxiety and then remind yourself of the tools you have to manage the discomfort. You can use deep breathing, calming self-talk, or mindfulness. As you are using your coping skills, continue to move toward the event. Anxiety may be a part of you, but it is not all of you.
“Pain in this life is not avoidable, but the pain we create avoiding pain is avoidable.”
As you expose yourself to anxiety-provoking situations, you build confidence in your ability to handle them. Facing events that create discomfort can feel similar to cleaning a wound. There may be pain associated with the scrubbing (increased anxiety), but once it is clean (you completed the difficult task), it heals faster (you build confidence). Action creates the possibility for change, and there is no change without action. Clean the wound and start healing.
If I could go back in time 25 years, I would definitely walk across that stage and accept my award. Since I can’t change the past, I have to focus on making better choices moving forward. When I begin to experience escalating anxiety about an event, I ask myself:
- What am I afraid of?
- What is the worst that could happen?
- If that happens, can I deal with it?
- What do I have going for me that can help in this situation?
Does this completely eliminate the anxiety? No. It does force me to consider the cost of avoidance and enables me to make a more informed decision about my behavior. I have not missed another awards ceremony.
Avoidance is a common behavior pattern that often leads to increased anxiety and discomfort. There is growth in challenges. Through awareness, you can identify your avoidant tendencies and explore underlying emotions that are fueling these behaviors.
Armed with this knowledge, create an action plan and use coping skills to manage the uncomfortable feelings along the way. This builds confidence and it becomes easier with time and practice. Anxiety can be uncomfortable, but you are ultimately in control. Take back the power!