Whether it’s cutting the lawn, proposing, going to the gym or telling your father you don’t want to take over his business, we all have things we avoid in our lives. Sometimes we know exactly why we are avoiding something and other times it’s just a vague sense of dread. Continuing to avoid things we know we will need to face means that we are carrying an extra weight, even when we think we are ignoring it. If you are tempted to stop reading, in case I convince you to do the thing you are avoiding, know this, looking at it is worth your time. Looking isn’t actually doing it but it might help you decide if it is worth it or not. Keep reading, I dare you…
Here are some of the reasons we avoid things that we know we need to do:
Seth was unemployed. He had been laid off three months earlier. His girlfriend was getting fed up.
“You just sit around all day while I’m at work, you haven’t even done the dishes. When are you going to get a job?” Seth avoided her eyes but was clearly irritated.
“I’m trying, okay, I don’t control the entire labour market,” ignoring the comments about the housework. In reality, Seth felt hopeless. During the first two months of unemployment, he had sent out countless resumes and called friends and contacts to try and get an ‘in’ somewhere. During that time he’d a schedule, Get up by 8am, have breakfast, coffee and check the online job listings. He’d choose 3 or 4 that fit his skill set, tweak his resume and cover letter for each and send them off and application. After lunch, if he had finished he would head to the gym for an hour or so and then come back and tidy the house before his girlfriend got home. But these days, he was losing hope. After all his work, he was still unemployed with nothing on the horizon. Seth was giving up. He had stopped looking online, stopped getting up early, eventually stopped going to the gym, and now he was could hardly bring himself to do the dishes. He was stuck.
Fear of Failure
Zoe was a dancer. Her teachers said she was a good one and she believed them. They encouraged her to try out for the professional company. Zoe knew that, at 16, it was time to make a leap, so to speak. But she feared that if she didn’t get in, there would be no future in dance for her. She felt paralyzed when she thought of that possibility. Zoe’s mother walked into her room and picked up the audition application from Zoe’s desk.
“Zoe, I thought you’d sent this already, why is it still here? It’s due next week!” Zoe didn’t want to get into it with her mother.
“I know, I’ll do it today.” But when Zoe left for school, it was still on her desk. Zoe was afraid. Afraid that if she failed, all of her dreams would be lost. Subconsciously, she had taken on the faulty believe that the best way to protect your dreams is to never expose them to a potential for failure.
Fear of Mistreatment
Randi needed to call his sister about the cabin. Randi and his partner had been out there on the weekend. There had been a lightning storm and a power surge blew out a fuse, but it also wrecked the stereo and the microwave. Randi was prepared to help replace them but knew his sister would be furious and would feel the need to berate him endlessly. Anytime Randi did something she didn’t like she’d let loose, without censorship, about him being “an idiot, a worthless piece of shit, a waste of space.” Randi knew the power surge was not his fault but he knew his sister wouldn’t see it that way. If he didn’t call her, she’d find out when she got there the next weekend. Maybe he and Loni could go camping and say they were out of cell phone range. Maybe he could pretend he didn’t know about it and that it must have happened after they’d left the cabin.
Pain & Embarrassment
Celia had sprained an ankle in the spring when out hiking with friends. She re-injured it later in the summer and had had to use crutches. Now it was fall and it was still sore. She’d been to physio and the physiotherapist had assured her that it was okay to walk on. Celia had missed out on a hiking, camping and canoeing over the summer because of her ankle and had felt lonely when everyone was away and she was stuck at home. She’d comforted herself with food and had put on some weight. Celia knew she needed to get back into shape, and that she needed to start by getting to the gym, if she wanted to be ready for her winter sports, but somehow, she just never seemed to get around to it. If she was honest with herself, she was embarrassed to be seen at her old gym in her current shape. She felt stupid for being embarrassed, “I’m a grown woman, I shouldn’t care what others think.” But there it was. She was also afraid of facing the pain in her ankle. Not that she couldn’t handle pain, but if she really tried to do what she wanted to do, and it was too painful, it would mean her recovery was going to be much longer than she anticipated. Somehow, she’d come to believe that if she didn’t feel the pain, she wouldn’t have to think about how long her recovery might be and the potential of missing out on more things and spending the winter, lonely.
Sharon and her husband had not had sex in a long time. Sharon was trying not to keep track. She worried that her husband might be having an affair or that he just didn’t find her attractive anymore but she was afraid to ask. She didn’t want to know if either of those things were true. Sharon was sad and found herself avoiding time alone with him, worried that her fears would spill out and that the terrible truth would come out and her life would be ruined. It was better if she just carried on as if things were normal.
Haley and Tiffany had been dating for about 5 months. Haley cared about Tiffany but knew that she needed to end things. Tiffany had warned her when they met that she had some mental health issues, and Haley thought she could handle it, but it was too much. The suicide threats every time they had an argument. Worrying about Tiffany when she didn’t hear from her for a couple of days, and then figuring out that she’d been using again. This she always found out through others, Tiffany was never up front about it. Haley was afraid of Tiffany’s reaction if Haley were to break up with her. Tiffany was always talking about how everyone leaves her and Haley had told her over and over, at least at the beginning, that she wasn’t leaving. Haley didn’t know if Tiffany would really harm herself if Haley broke up with her. Haley couldn’t live with the thought of pushing Tiffany over the edge that way.
These are just some of the reasons that we avoid doing what we know we need to do. Obviously each scenario is very different, but there are some general things that can help you to face the thing that you need to do.
Here are 7 things to try:
1. Find out what you are afraid of
The first step to avoiding avoiding is to check in with yourself to see what it is you are actually afraid of. This will take focusing on the part of yourself that you have maybe not wanted to look at, the painful part. For more on this see An Emotionally Conscious Resolution and A Good Time to Panic.
2. Get outside help/support/expertise as needed
In some cases, the solution may be found in getting more supports. We are a VERY individualistic society, to a fault. We think that if we ask for help, it shows weakness. I call “bullshit” on that one. No one is an expert in everything. A “strong” or “in control” (or whatever adjective you think you need to be, as an adult) person is someone who knows what they need and where to get it. For example, in Seth’s situation, where he couldn’t find a job, getting an employment counsellor might be part of a solution for him. Celia, who broke her ankle might consider hiring a personal trainer to get her back on track or find a friend whom she can confide in about her fears, who is willing to go to the gym with her. Getting more expertise or finding support is a way to face something that feels bigger than you.
3. Focus on what you do have control over
When you’ve tried everything you know and it doesn’t seem to be working, focus on the things you do have control over. The little things. The day to day things. Work on a foundation of good habits for long term sustainability. When we can care for our own needs (with help, as needed), then the things outside of your control will have less impact (notice I didn’t say, “no impact”) on you. For example, in Seth’s case, he may need to restart his previous schedule, perhaps adding volunteering somewhere or exploring education options, to his repertoire, something that he can build on, that gives meaning and is of interest to him.
4. Set boundaries
When others mistreat you, as in Randi’s case, avoiding them is a common way to respond. Setting boundaries is a way of not being a victim in these circumstances. Instead of freezing or hiding around people who are disrespectful towards you, you can be proactive in your interactions with them. Check out Where Do I Draw the Line?
5. Take measured risks/ experiment
When trying new things, such as setting boundaries with someone who has, historically, been anywhere from unsupportive to abusive, consider what has happened in the past. How have they responded? What have they said or done? If you are setting boundaries with someone who has never respected them in the past and, if you have trouble setting boundaries, in general, you may want to try this with someone who has been consistently respectful of you before trying it with the other person. Practice the conversation you need to have with that unsupportive person with someone who is more supportive, preferably someone who knows this person and who will be able to give you feedback. Remember, even if they respond negatively, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ve done anything wrong. (Check out When Boundaries Aren’t Respected and Conflict- Approach or Avoid? 6 Things to Consider
6. Consider the long term
Avoidance is often focused on the short term. Consider the long term implications of not following through with the thing you need to do. In Haley’s case, she needs to consider that Tiffany does not likely want to be with someone who is only there out of pity, and, even if Tiffany is okay with that Haley will not likely be able to continue for long in that role. When there are real safety concerns, for instance if someone were to threaten suicide, know the supports available in your community. You are not the only one who is able to provide supports, even in remote communities there are often crisis line, nursing stations, hospitals and mental health workers to help with mental health crisis and whom you can either refer others to when they express mental health issues, or call, yourself if unsure what to do. In Manitoba these can be found at Crisis Services Canada.
For Sharon, the fear that her husband doesn’t want her, brings suffering, even when she is trying to ignore it. Facing a worst case scenario will be necessary in order to work through the fear to a place where Sharon can imagine surviving such a catastrophe and can then ask her husband. Her worst fears may be realized, but then she knows and can look at the next page of life. There is also a chance that her worst fears are not realized. We often jump to worst case scenario and these scenarios do not come true nearly as often as we imagine they will. See Jealousy in Relationships and How Everyone can make Divorces Better for Everyone.
7. Check your perspective
So, what if you fail, what if you look like a fool, what if someone rejects you? Lindy, West, a comedian, journalist and author speaks about how she built her self esteem, in her memoir “Shrill,”* She starts with “Step one – steal a bean from the grocery store.” Lindy speaks about stealing a small dried bean from the grocery store at the age of 4, when she was so shy she barely spoke above a whisper, and only to her mother, and how her mother forced her to bring it back to the store and confess to the store clerk what she had done. What Lindy discovered from that experience was, that she didn’t actually die, like she thought she would. Lindy goes on to talk about other embarrassing experiences that she would have predicted would end in death, but that actually ended in her being fine. Her point is, that when you realize that what you thought would kill you, doesn’t, you can carry on with more strength, allowing yourself more risks. 5 Steps to Recovering from Failure and 7 Ways to Boost Your Self-Esteem.
Sometimes there are good reasons to avoid a situation, like when you don’t have all the information you need to make a decision or when the safety risks to your physical well being, or your mental health are too great, but I hope that you can find the support, the perspective and the tools you need to move forward.
You may also want to check out Avoiding Exercise – An Expert’s Guide
And also Passive Aggressiveness
*Please note: I have signed on as an affiliate sales person for McNally Robinson which means that if you click on the above link, and decide to purchase the book I’ve recommended, I will receive an affiliate’s fee. I only recommend books I have read and believe to be worth recommending.