The Seduction of Avoidance

I’ve wanted to write an article about avoidance for ages. It’s a topic that pops up regularly in counselling and it’s a popular coping strategy which offers several apparent benefits. Avoidance can be such a tempting, seemingly easy solution that it might not even occur to us that other options exist, and often, those options seem way harder than avoiding; so why bother?

Why bother is a personal decision and what I’m about to tell you may seem like bad or unwanted news, particularly if avoidance has you convinced that it’s the easy answer to many of life’s problems. And the hard alternative to avoidance, facing things, can sometimes feel so noxious that we retreat back to avoidance. So maybe this article isn’t for you.

And in some situations, avoidance may even be the best thing! For example, avoiding unsafe people or situations is often the healthiest strategy; this article is not about taking on situations that would compromise our safety, wellbeing or integrity. Nor is this article meant to imply criticism or judgement around the reasons why we avoid.

But for those who are intrigued, and want to consider alternative options to avoidance, where appropriate, there may be something in this article for you.

What is Avoidance?

I’d like to limit my definition here to the behaviour of avoidance and refrain from the labels “avoidant person” or “avoidant personality” which tend to be self-limiting, or threaten to be negatively self-defining.

Avoidant behaviour can include:

  • Ignoring situations that require attention, hoping that they will “go away”
  • Passive or people pleasing behaviour in order to avoid conflict
  • Deflecting responsibility onto others or external situations
  • Disappearing / flaking out of commitments or standing someone up
  • Lying in order to avoid consequences
  • Committing to something and not following through
  • Restricting social contact or situations

A Case for Avoidance?

As noted above, the instinct to avoid can be overwhelmingly strong, particularly when:

  • We feel anxious or panicked 
  • We achieve short-term anxiety relief when we avoid
  • We feel threatened (in the face of real or imagined danger)
  • It’s so habitual that it’s become an automatic response
  • It’s the way we learned to solve problems growing up
  • We’re worried about others’ reactions and we think that avoiding will ease tensions

Avoidance may also present us with some tempting mental, or cognitive, messages.  Avoidance may tell us that:

  • Our problems with disappear if we ignore the situation
  • Our problems will get worse if we own up or take responsibility
  • We will have a panic attack if we do what needs to be done
  • We can’t handle facing things
  • People will not like us if we tell the truth
  • We don’t like the person or situation we’re in so it’s only natural to avoid
  • People will be disappointed, hurt or angry if we own up
  • We worry that others will judge us or focus on us unduly (common with social anxiety)
  • Our image or reputation will be tarnished if we’re truthful
  • It’s so much easier to avoid
  • We don’t care so what difference does it make to do the right thing
  • We’ve suffered enough and that we’re entitled to avoid after everything we’ve been through
  • It’s other people’s problem
  • We are seeking revenge or we’re being passive-aggressive, and avoiding will help us stick it to someone else

Why Not Avoid?

It can feel pretty counterintuitive to go against avoidance, particularly when it feels so effortless and natural.  I may not be able to convince you otherwise, but here are a few things to consider:

Avoidance Often Makes Situations Worse – Some examples:

  • Not going to work will lead to dismissal
  • Not paying rent will result in eviction
  • Not maintaining friendships or relationships tends to lead to people drifting apart

Avoidance Increases Interpersonal Conflict

When we avoid situations or people, we may hope that others won’t notice, but unfortunately the opposite can happen; others may react more strongly to the avoidance or the fallout from the avoidance than they would have if the situation had been dealt with from the outset.

Reputations Can Be Damaged By Avoidance

Integrity and intentions can be called into question by others which could be a problem, particularly in employment situations or in relationships where avoidance violated trust.

Avoidance Erodes Self Esteem and Confidence

Avoidance carries with it the underlying message that we won’t be able to cope with, or handle facing difficult situations. We avoid and never gain the perspective that we have the strength to deal with things.

Avoidance Increases Long-Term Anxiety

One of the most tempting aspects of avoidance is the immediate gratification of lowering anxiety; often, however the effects are only temporary as we quickly shift to wondering how a unresolved situation will evolve and we may start fearing the consequences even more.

Avoidance Keeps Problems Alive

When we avoid, there is often no resolution to the situation or problem we’re avoiding.  This increases uncertainty—one of the most common triggers for anxiety.

Tips for Limiting the Stress of Facing Things

If you’re interested in carving a new path by making the choice to deal directly with difficult problems or situations, it’s normal to feel apprehensive: you’re about to (temporarily) increase your stress! The following tips may help:

  • Be patient, particularly if avoidance is an entrenched habit and coping strategy. It takes time to change avoidance behaviours
  • Start small. If avoidance is your MO, begin by facing small things or less stressful situations.
  • If something can be done quickly and it’s not a huge source of stress, do it right away, to avoid situations from escalating or worsening over time
  • Tell trusted friends or family members that you are trying to make changes and that their support and patience is appreciated!
  • Adjust your expectations – You may still experience negative consequences, however when compared to outright avoidance, you may still come out ahead
  • Practice relaxation strategies before facing difficult challenges
  • Meditate, practice mindfulness or pray if you are so inclined
  • Employ self care strategies, leading up to and after challenging yourself
  • Diversify and bolster your coping repertoire, particularly if anxiety is high
  • Research anxiety and learn specific ways of treating it; consider professional counselling if it seems overwhelming or you want more specific help
  • Remind yourself of the courage it takes to face things and be open to noticing positive changes that can come from facing things: increases in confidence, reduced anxiety and improved self-esteem over time!