What Are You Avoiding? You Can Learn a Lot by Asking Yourself This Question

A conversation with psychologist Jessica R.M. Goodnight
March 7, 2020 Updated: March 9, 2020

Are there things you’re avoiding in your life? 

Perhaps, it’s a pile of mail because a scary bill may be lurking in there. Perhaps, it’s a conversation that you really should have with your spouse or a colleague. Perhaps, it’s your email inbox, a repository of unfulfilled obligations and expectations. Perhaps, it’s a goal you have that you’re afraid to start, in case you might fail.

You can learn a lot about yourself and what’s holding you back by asking yourself the question, “What am I avoiding?”

Once you determine you’re avoiding something, how can you begin to break this habit of avoiding and stop putting off the things you should face?

I spoke to clinical psychologist Jessica R.M. Goodnight to better understand this coping mechanism of avoidance and how we can stem its influence in our lives. Here’s what she said.

Epoch Times Photo
Clinical psychologist Jessica R.M. Goodnight of the Anxiety and Trauma Clinic of Atlanta. (Courtesy of Jessica R.M. Goodnight)

The Epoch Times: What is avoidance coping? Is it different from procrastination?

Dr. Jessica Goodnight: Avoidance coping encompasses basically anything we do to avoid thinking or feeling something that might make us uncomfortable. 

Procrastination is often a form of avoidance coping. But not always! It really depends on why we’re procrastinating. Sometimes, we procrastinate because a task just isn’t that interesting or doesn’t fit with our values or goals, so we sort of twiddle our thumbs in protest, knowingly or not. But often, procrastination has roots in fear and anxiety—fear of failure, fear of being evaluated by others, perfectionist standards—and we procrastinate because the task brings up those uncomfortable feelings. 

The Epoch Times: How common is the behavior of avoidance as a coping mechanism?

Dr. Goodnight: Extremely common. We all do it, to a greater or lesser extent. Avoidance is actually the normal way people act when we feel afraid; this tendency is literally necessary for our survival. Think about it—if we didn’t run when we were scared, what would drive us to jump out of the way if faced with a moving car?

The problem is that we now apply the same survival mechanisms to situations that have much lower stakes, like a work presentation. Human biology hasn’t caught up, so our emotions might treat the prospect of one bad presentation as if it were as dangerous as oncoming traffic. 

People who have overcome the tendency to avoid have probably taught themselves how to “feel the fear and do it anyway.”

The Epoch Times: What are some common ways people use avoidance?

Dr. Goodnight: Distraction is probably the most common form of avoidance. Don’t want to think about something? Easy, just scroll through social media or turn on the TV. 

Another common avoidance strategy—worrying. When we think and think and plan for the future and try to predict every possible bad outcome, we might be avoiding experiencing reality for what it is. All that preparation is like armor we build up in advance for a terrible future that might never—and probably won’t—come. If we prepare appropriately and then just allow reality to be as it is, that might bring up some uncomfortable feelings, especially for chronic worriers or overplanners. Worrying makes us feel in control; this is an illusion.

But sometimes avoidant strategies are very simple—you just don’t do things that make you feel bad. This form of avoidance is usually the one that wreaks the most havoc in life. If there are things you just can’t do, that tends to be very life-limiting.

The Epoch Times: What are the potential consequences of avoidance?

Dr. Goodnight: There are many possible consequences of avoidance, but I would say there are two big ones. The first is that it can rob you of your own sense of how capable you are. If you tend to do a lot of avoidant coping, that can sometimes communicate to your brain, “I can’t handle things” or even “I’m weak” or “I’m broken.” So avoidance tends to really harm self-esteem.

The second thing is that avoidance often limits your freedom, especially if you are engaging in behavioral avoidance: not doing things that make you feel uncomfortable. Behavioral avoidance in some cases is like living inside an ever-shrinking box. Your options narrow.

The Epoch Times: How can you recognize in yourself the tendency to avoid?

Dr. Goodnight: When you’re trying to recognize avoidance, it’s important to first think about your values. Think: “If I wasn’t afraid, what would I be doing? If it didn’t make me uncomfortable, what changes would I want in my life?” Take some time with this question and try not to be hard on yourself; it’s human nature to avoid discomfort. But, if your behavior doesn’t match up with your personal values, you might be avoiding.

The Epoch Times: What are some practical ways to avoid avoiding?

Dr. Goodnight: I recommend the mantra, “May I be guided by my hopes and not my fears.” For some people, simply having this intentionality can help you tackle avoidant tendencies.

If it’s not so simple, start practicing awareness of your own drive toward avoidance. Mindfulness meditation often helps here. It doesn’t need to be complicated—simply taking a daily shower where you try to be fully present the whole time might help you notice just how strong your tendency is to be “elsewhere” in your mind. You could also try one of the many mindfulness meditation apps. This should allow for better recognizing avoidance when it’s happening. 

You might start noticing, “Wow, I just turned on the TV because I didn’t want to think about what happened today at work.” The first step to stopping avoidance is noticing when it’s happening, catching yourself in the act, and choosing a different path. This is a practice, not something that can be solved in a few days. Regular practice of mindfulness probably won’t have much impact until you’ve been doing it for at least a few weeks. 

Then, see if you can start slowly doing things that you care about, that you’ve been avoiding because of how they make you feel. Go a little at a time here, this is hard work. Start taking little risks, and see what happens. This is how fear is overcome. 

If the avoided task is a big, complicated one, it might help to make a specific game plan. I really like SMART goals for this. Say you’ve been procrastinating on clearing your email inbox because it feels overwhelming. You might need to break it down into specific, actionable steps, such as “clear 20 emails from my inbox every day this month.” Make each specific task slightly challenging, but totally doable.

I will say that there are plenty of people that might need professional assistance in overcoming avoidance, such as people with anxiety disorders, OCD, PTSD, and depression. In this case, I urge people to seek help from a therapist specializing in cognitive behavioral therapy—and if avoidance is driven by anxiety, make sure they practice exposure therapy. Exposure therapy is a way of overcoming avoidance with the guidance of a therapist, who helps you navigate this process if it’s too complicated or emotionally intense to do on your own.

Follow Barbara on Twitter: @barbaradanza