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Ironically, I’ve been avoiding writing this blog post about avoidance. It’s now Wednesday evening, less than 24 hours before the post goes live, and I’m just beginning to put words on a page. And to be honest, I think I’ve been avoiding writing this post because it feels hard. This is an important topic, but one I don’t find easy to write about because it is something I also struggle with daily.
When something feels hard, though, I find the best place to start is with the truth – with something I know deep down at a gut level. And what my gut is telling me right now is I’m not alone. Avoidance affects everyone. It is part of the human experience because fear and heartache and pain and difficulty are part of the human experience.
Regardless of the form it takes, and there are many – hiding, lying, procrastinating, distracting, escaping – avoidance is a coping mechanism we use to stave off these stressors. And while we may initially be tempted to write off all avoidance as unhealthy behavior, there are times when it might actually be helpful. So, let’s first look at two examples of when avoidance is healthy.
In her best selling book, The 5 Second Rule, Mel Robbins calls one form of healthy avoidance “productive procrastination.” She explains it this way:
“So, if you are working on a creative project, and you don’t have a fixed deadline, it’s not procrastination if you let your work sit for a few weeks so you can let your mind wander. It’s the creative process. Those fresh new ideas you have as you procrastinate productively will make your work even smarter.”
Another form of healthy avoidance is creating helpful distractions. Generally speaking, a distraction takes our attention off of one thing by focusing it on another. This can obviously be used in destructive ways, but in terms of healthy avoidance, we might use distraction to calm or relax our minds and bodies. For example, if going to the dentist makes you nervous, you might distract yourself from your nerves by reading an interesting magazine article in the waiting room.
However, both procrastination and distraction can be unhealthy if overused or used in an unproductive way. You might procrastinate on scheduling a life-saving doctors appointment because you’re afraid of the possibility of bad news. Or, you might distract yourself with social media to avoid the emptiness of your real social life.
Now that we can see a clear difference between healthy and unhealthy avoidance, we need to address how to stop the unhealthy kind. The following four steps have helped me as I work to stop unhealthy avoidance in my own life, and I believe they can help you, too.
Acknowledge the Behavior
The first step to stop unhealthy avoidance is to simply acknowledge it, not just as a general part of your life, but acknowledge it every time you find yourself avoiding something. Just as you can’t treat a disease that you don’t know is present in your body, you can’t stop your tendency to avoid when you aren’t aware of it.
Ask Yourself Why
The second step is to figure out why you are avoiding in the first place. Every time you acknowledge yourself avoiding, take the additional step of asking yourself why. If you lied to your spouse about going shopping, ask yourself why you felt the need to lie. Was it because you were afraid your spouse would be mad about how much you spent? Was it because you felt guilty about spending money on yourself? Or, maybe you had been using shopping as another coping mechanism for your stress and, as a result, you felt ashamed. In all three of these examples, you are lying to your spouse to avoid an unpleasant feeling – fear, guilt, or shame.
The third step, then, to stop unhealthy avoidance is to try to better understand the underlying why. Using the shopping example again, if you lied to your spouse about going shopping because you felt guilty for spending money on yourself, then you need to understand why you felt guilty. Something as simple as journaling your thoughts can be immensely helpful in understanding a feeling; or you might need to go deeper with a therapist to help you understand when and why this feeling emerged, especially if it is a pattern in your life. One possible reason you might feel guilty about spending money on yourself is because you don’t believe you are worthy.
Replace the Behavior
The fourth and final step to stop unhealthy avoidance is to establish a new healthy behavior to replace the old unhealthy one. If lying has become second nature, establish a ritual of making strong eye contact and pausing for a deep breath before answering a question or beginning a conversation. If binge watching TV has become an escape from work related stress, replace TV time with yoga, cooking a healthy meal, playing with your kids or reading a book.
At first these four steps may seem like a lot of work, but a) you are worth it and b) they will eventually become second nature the more you use them.
No matter what type of avoidance you find yourself engaging in, it is possible to do something about it. You do have control over your behaviors. You just need to take the first step, put one foot – one healthy action – in front of the other, and before long you’ll be on a whole new path to experiencing, not avoiding, your one beautiful life.
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