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What Could Avoidance Be Hiding From You?

Steven Topper LCPC

The very first signs of life on earth were tiny, single-celled organisms in the ocean. Before that, nothing (that we know of). And since then, all life has come from those protozoa. We are the great great great ancestors of those tiny creatures. Back then, millions of years ago, the organisms could only engage in two behaviors. They could not write disgruntled three-star Yelp reviews, couldn’t halve the recipe from that fancy book, couldn’t turn on Spotify or give a hug or even take a vacation. The only two things those organisms could do were to move toward light and nutrients and to move away from toxic chemicals. Only two behaviors were available to the earliest forms of life. And in some ways, they may be the only behaviors available to us, still today.

In our modern world, we have access to seemingly infinite amounts of decisions. Every day we are tasked with tiny and large choices, from which route to take to see a friend to which show to watch on Netflix. There may be times when it’s helpful to view our behaviors through the lens of two choices: toward or away? Within this is the concept of avoidance. We have been learning to avoid harmful things since the beginning of life on Earth. It’s programmed into our brains through neurochemicals and hormones (think how the fight/flight/freeze response is a strategy to avoid danger). Yet in our world, avoidance can at times be so ubiquitous, it hides its costs from us. Looking at how avoidance can manifest and what could possibly be done as an alternative can help unlock opportunities we didn’t know existed.

“I’m not an angry person.” This is a quote I’ve actually said many times in my life. I’ve described how it just doesn’t seem to happen to me and that overall, I’m simply not bothered by very many things in life. This concept of myself is cherry-picked by my brain in order to ensure that the story of who Steven is maintains its cohesion. One major way we avoid is by telling ourselves stories of who we are. We become more focused on this version of ourselves that it blinds up from parts of experience. So, when someone wrongs me or I feel that energy in my chest, it becomes incredibly difficult for me to notice or name anger. The I’m not an angry person has shielded me from the awareness of that part of my experience. This has resulted in me feeling hurt, invalidated, and underappreciated. It also may make it very difficult to assertively communicate when I’ve been wronged. 

Suppression can be another way I might avoid. A feeling or thought comes up, and I do my best to push it back down below the surface. We might deny them to ourselves and others or distract ourselves from the feelings by scrolling or sleeping as ways to get out of the feelings of the present moment. This strategy often works well in the short term. And yet, in the long run those thoughts and feelings seem to pop back up. And then I have to spend more time trying to get rid of them again. I might avoid feeling rejection by pretending that I’m not into the person I’m dating, lying about how I was the one who broke it off, or by simply not going on dates. All of these help me avoid the pain of rejection, yet may impact me harmfully in the long run if I want a long term partner.

Finally, the most major avoidance strategy us humans love to employ is problem-solving. We will treat parts of experience as though it is wrong and must be fixed. We search and search for the solution. Just now, I’ve typed into the Google search bar, “How can I be less” and the results were as followed: sensitive, awkward, emotional, annoying, tired, stressed, selfish, neurotic, judgmental. All of these words represent experiences we much prefer to avoid. So much so that we turn to the internet to solve the problem of that experience. In so many areas of our lives, problem-solving is the perfect strategy to get ahead. Yet when we attempt to problem-solve things that might not be problems, we become trapped. Treating anger, rejection, and sadness as problems to be solved makes sense, yet they also may be necessary emotions to experience when living a life or vitality. Problem-solving often means paying for the avoidance of those emotions with vitality. 

So, what can we do with these aspects of our lives if we don’t have to avoid them? Keep in mind, avoidance isn’t bad at all (we need not avoid avoidance!). We’ve been doing it since the beginning of life and there’s no need to stop now. Yet having to avoid things that show up in life automatically, or come along with living the way we’d like to live, can really shrink the scope of our lives. A helpful stance to adopt is open, aware, engaged. Can I remain open to my experiences, and not just the stories I have about myself and others? Can I be aware of when I’m suppressing or pushing down discomfort and aware of the present moment? Can I engage with the discomfort in a way that isn’t about fixing it or lessening it? When we allow these questions to help guide us, many more decisions open up than we thought possible. 

Talk to your therapist to learn more ways to become more open, aware, and engaged in your life. Contact Symmetry Counseling today to meet with one of our Chicago counselors in-person or via online counseling.

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