The subject of avoidance has come up more than once this week so here are some insights I’ve had.
Avoidance as a coping strategy is often formed in childhood in an effort to deal with overwhelming or painful experiences. And in this context it can be a highly effective painkiller. But this “positive feedback” is a double edged sword. Just like pharmaceutical painkillers it can easily with constant use, become addictive. Pretty soon it becomes your default program for dealing with the tough stuff of life—without you being aware of it.
Initially our avoidance techniques kicked in when we realized there was a problem, but felt we couldn’t deal with it.
In childhood this is understandable, and can give us temporary relief.
The Danger Of Avoidance
However, when avoidance becomes a default program, we no longer use it. It uses us. It kicks in automatically whenever we even imagine we are out of our depth or faced with a situation we perceive as threatening. It becomes an unconscious game of hide-and-seek with ourselves—if I can’t see you, you can’t see me!
Avoidance, as you may have found is a highly unsatisfactory problem solving strategy. Our logic tells us this. But we’re no longer using logic—just instinctively avoiding pain. .
Habitually avoiding issues that need to be addressed leads to 5 problems.
- The original problem keeps compounding, until it grows to overwhelming proportions and becomes a weapon of self destruction.
- Our inaction and therefore lack of boundaries, sends mixed messages to whoever is the source of the threat, leading to an escalation of the threatening behavior.
- We are unable to see where the threat is coming from, because we can’t run away and look over our shoulders at the same time.
- The side effects of constant avoidance bleed into and contaminate other areas of our lives.
- Long term avoidance strategies often result in a sense of failure and hopelessness.
Let’s look at how these 5 complications of avoidance can show up in our lives.
- If you go away for long periods and leave your car standing out in the open, what may initially have started with a flat battery, will rapidly deteriorate into peeling paintwork, flat tires and perished cables and hoses. If you repeatedly avoid problem areas in business, you won’t be in business long. If you ignore relationship issues that need to be faced, the relationship will eventually fall apart. If you take no notice of health issues, they will escalate until you are seriously ill.
- If you don’t value yourself enough to take a stand and set behavior boundaries, it indicates a green light—go ahead and do more of what you are doing. It’s fine by me. I agree. So a person who was an intermittent irritation can ultimately become a delusional stalker or bully. If you don’t draw the line at work, eventually you will become another burn-out statistic. And if you decide to put in boundaries at a later date, it’s easy to be discredited. No one will believe you. If you weren’t happy with the dynamics, why did you go along with the game for so long? Why didn’t you set boundaries sooner? Why did you send mixed messages?
- Unhealthy situations can escalate to a dangerous level quite quickly if you are not paying attention and don’t heed the warnings. If you don’t take note of the cardiac symptoms until you have a heart attack. If you don’t acknowledge that your business is hemorrhaging money, until you face bankruptcy. If you don’t secure your possessions, until they are stolen. If you don’t pay attention to what your partner is saying, until he or she runs out of patience and is no longer there.
- If you’re avoiding the warning signs from your body that it’s taking strain—if you’re stressed for instance, that’s going to have a knock on effect on your business, and relationships. If you’re ignoring warning signs in your relationship, it may well have a negative impact on your business and health. And if you’re avoiding the warning signs that all is not well with your business, it can easily lead to problems with your partner and family and ultimately manifest as stress related health issues.
- If thTese automatic avoidance strategies keep resulting in business or relationship failures or ill health, pretty soon you will start believing that no matter what you try, you will fail. It doesn’t occur to you that it is something you are doing or not doing that yields these results. All you know is no matter how hard you consciously bust your butt things never seem to work out. This results in feeling helpless, hopeless and worthless – not exactly confidence building. And the longer you do it, the more confidence eroding it is.
It’s easy to tell which areas our avoidance saboteur is operating in because what’s showing up in our lives repeatedly tells us! If your finances or business ventures or relationships or health keep lurching from crisis to crisis no matter how hard you try, it’s obvious in which area the avoidance saboteur is at work.
And what if you know where the problem lies, but you just can’t get motivated enough to deal with it? Why would that be?
The Role Of Your Unconscious In Avoidance
The primary responsibility of our unconscious minds is to keep us safe.
It’s a psychological security guard. It is therefore pre-programmed to lead us towards pleasure and away from pain. It’s just a matter of what our unconscious perceives as pain and what it perceives as pleasure. In other words how we market the desired outcome to ourselves.
So when we decide consciously that we want to achieve a goal that will make us really happy—a well padded bank account, a luxurious lifestyle, a happy, committed relationship or a fit, healthy body, the first question the security guard is going to ask is how much hardship and pain is involved and will it be worth it?
If we are not successful in selling the idea to our subconscious he will fight the conscious mind’s desires, preventing the project from getting off the ground. If the subconscious is persuaded he will sign up for the adventure.
Then everything starts off really well.
We throw ourselves into the project with huge enthusiasm, energy and commitment. Until…..reality bites! I think I underestimated how difficult this was going to be mutters the subconscious, starting to feel uneasy as the discomfort levels rise.
Our subconscious mind is not at fault. He’s just doing his job. And if we have a sound understanding of how our conscious and subconscious minds work; what their responsibilities are and how to broker an agreement between them, so that they both feel reassured, and remain on the same team, it all works well
But what if there is a consistent overemphasis on discipline, work and goals?
What if delayed gratification becomes a way of life; if a Spartan existence becomes the norm; if you don’t keep your promise to reward yourself; if life becomes a survival course; a tedious route march of all work and no play; in other words if your conscious mind tries to gain the upper hand by force? Your subconscious mind (who has your welfare and happiness at heart) just goes on strike. And all that enthusiasm, energy and commitment dies an instant death.
It’s like promising a 4 year old an ice cream when you’ve walked to the beach. But if the beach turns out to be 10 miles away, his enthusiasm for the ice cream is likely to die long before you get there. If every time he asks how much further and where is that ice cream you promised me you say just shut up and keep walking, we’re nearly there, he’s going to have a tantrum!
Worse still, if you have made your 4 year old the same proposition many times before; if he’s a jaded veteran he knows just how far 10 miles is, and there’s no way he’s going to go along with a plan he knows from experience will in his estimation entail far more pain than gain.
So the unconscious mind (that metaphorical 4 year old) takes matters into its own hands.
He distracts you; convinces you to avoid what has become painful; he tricks you into playing instead. And you end up frittering hours on frivolous diversions that don’t require any effort—chatting on the phone or Facebook for instance, rather than deal with problems that are crying out for solutions.
Getting The Cooperation Of Your Unconscious
How then do you sell a goal that requires sustained effort to a 4 year old? You make it FUN! You pump up the joy factor. You make it something he wants to do – not something he has to do. You provide positive feedback at the end of each mile. If you keep your word and consistently inject joy along the way he’ll learn to trust you and you’ll cover those 10 miles with no resistance or distractions.
And so it is with our subconscious minds.
We humans need balance in our lives; equal quantities of challenge and joy. Without joy there is nothing to build momentum for the challenges; no reason to keep on keeping on; no answer to the question why am I doing this?
Revel in your relationship. Reward yourself for your work. Enjoy being fit and health. Make time to celebrate your milestones. Take the trouble to congratulate yourself on each step in the right direction. Enjoy the fruits of your labors as you go along. Make each step of the journey memorable for all the right reasons. Squeeze as much FUN as you can out of life!
Next time you are tempted to be a slave driver or avoid an issue that you know needs addressing ask yourself this:
If I place a high value on myself and believe I deserve the best, what would I do? And here’s the clue….BALANCE.