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You jump at the opportunity to do the dishes at a social gatherings so you don’t have to interact with others.
You decide not to reach out to a friend you haven’t seen in a while in case they won’t be happy to hear from you.
You schedule your weekends full to make sure you don’t have much down time.
While it may seem appealing to minimize opportunities for discomfort, avoidance is a serious problem many people deal with. Imagine avoidance on a continuum. The more prevalent avoidance is in your life, the more severe an impact it will have. Research has linked avoidance to shame and addictions, most recently internet addiction (Farkush & Fatemeh, 2022).
Those with significant avoidant tendencies may exhibit some of the characteristics below.
- A feeling of being generally inferior to others with a tendency toward shame.
- Hesitance to try new activities, pursue goals, or meet new people.
- Fear of being criticized, rejected, or judged.
- A concern that others will find them lacking or even unappealing.
- Tendency to keep people at arm’s length.
- Tendency to be restricted and somewhat anxious in social settings.
If you’re relating to some items on this list, you may have an avoidant style. What’s tricky about living a life of avoidance is that avoidance is a lonely endeavor. When you deeply fear rejection due to self-doubt and feelings of inadequacy, it’s difficult to share this with others or seek help. So, you persevere, living in a cycle of fear, anxiety, avoidance, and shame.
Childhood Emotional Neglect
To get to the root of why some people become avoidant, we must talk about childhood emotional neglect. Childhood emotional neglect happens when your parents do not respond enough to your emotional needs.
Let’s imagine you’re a small child and decide you don’t want to go to school one day. Instead of being met with an emotionally attuned response like, “Is everything okay? Why don’t you want to go to school today?” you are met with an absence of emotional attention or curiosity from your parents.
Growing up with emotional neglect, a child receives an unspoken yet clear message: your feelings are unimportant. You learn not to express yourself and to not speak up. Even more importantly, you learn to avoid your emotions, the very thing that should be motivating and empowering you.
In an emotionally neglectful family, you may grow up feeling invisible, unworthy, and invalid in an environment that is not safe to feel. When the people in your life who guide and protect you (your parents) teach you that your feelings are irrelevant, you believe them.
Childhood emotional neglect fosters feelings of shame, low self-worth, and–you guessed it–avoidance.
1. It’s a coping mechanism.
Avoidance is your way of coping. If something scares you and you avoid it, you no longer have to face this scary thing. That feels like a win.
2. It was helpful in childhood.
We typically develop our coping mechanisms in childhood. If you experienced childhood emotional neglect, it was probably quite adaptive for you to avoid your emotions. You learned to fit in with your environment. If no one was there to help you learn other, more effective coping methods, you can’t fault yourself for being avoidant.
3. It’s easy for avoidance to become a part of who you are.
Since emotions make up a large part of our lives and you were taught not to feel, avoidance is something that needs to be done over and over again. It’s a solution that seems to work well for you when you have an emotion you don’t know what to do with.
4. You get caught in a vicious cycle.
If you fear something and avoid it, the scary thing doesn’t just go away. And so, when the scary thing comes back, and you avoid it again, this time it might feel even scarier, and so on. The more you avoid, the more your fear grows.
5. Underneath avoidance are negative beliefs about yourself.
A deep-seated belief is at the root of avoidance: something is wrong with me. You believe and feel that you are less valid and less important than others. This is a common result of childhood emotional neglect.
I hope it’s now clear why it can be quite difficult to take risks, socialize, and try new things if you struggle with avoidance. If you don’t believe in yourself and were taught that other people don’t believe in you either, it’s hard to put yourself out there.
There is a way out of this vicious cycle. You may not like it, but it involves confronting what you’ve been avoiding all this time. It can be helpful to think of it this way: when you first started to avoid, the thing you feared started small. You just didn’t have the tools or support to deal with it.
Now, your fear has grown and feels even more frightening because you’ve been avoiding it. So, you may end up finding that the things you’ve been avoiding are not so scary after all.
How to Confront vs. Avoid
- Ask yourself these questions: What did you need to avoid in your childhood home? What was going on that was difficult to deal with?
- Know that you did the best you knew how as a child. But now, avoidance is not serving you. You can learn and implement much more effective coping strategies.
- Become aware of your avoidant behaviors. When do you do it? Why do you do it? How do you feel before, during, and after you avoid it? Are there certain emotions you’re avoiding?
- Identify any themes you notice. Maybe you avoid social situations? Work or school? New opportunities?
- Create a hierarchy. A hierarchy is a system you can follow to make this process easier and more manageable. Identify things you avoid but are willing to confront at the top of the list. At the bottom of your list are things you avoid that would be extremely difficult to face. Start at the top and work your way down.
- Learn more about childhood emotional neglect and its relationship with avoidance. This is a great way to understand the function behind your avoidant behaviors.
Understandably, you want relief and comfort, but avoiding is an ineffective solution because it leaves you feeling vulnerable and alone.
All these years, avoidance has held power over you and your life. The time is now to take your power back and live your life freely, without the shackles of avoidance.
© Jonice Webb, Ph.D.