One day a friend of mine who I had been meaning to call (but now felt anxious about how long it had been) got on the bus I was on. Instead of waving to him and saying, “So glad I ran into you!”, I literally ducked down, headed out the back exit and walked home… in the rain. This is just one of the so many ways my propensity for avoiding uncomfortable scenarios has popped up in my life.
Here are some of the ways I’ve learned to push back on this habit, or at least limit its harm, over the years.
Identify your avoidant tendencies out loud to actual people.
When it’s possible, tell the people around you: “Hi. I’m a Gemini. I love Harry Potter and eating pasta at all times of day… and my natural instinct is to fall off when things get too stressful. Sometimes they don’t even have to be that stressful. I try to resist that reaction, but it’s kind of my default setting.
I try and do some version of this confession with new employers, advisors, mental health folk, friends, and lovers. If it’s a scenario where you feel comfortable doing this (i.e. it won’t it won’t lead to loss of employment), then try it. It can sometimes help with the anxiety of, “I must not mess this new thing up like I did all those other things.” In addition, it opens the door to what type of communication style can work for you. For me, it’s, “If I drop off the face of the planet, please check in or reach out more than once.” Those around you may or may not agree, but at least you made the effort to articulate what you might need if avoidance strikes.
Built up your safety nets.
If you have an undertaking you need to tackle, build an accountability safety net. Whenever I have significant deadlines or pending tasks, I let the people closest to me know. It’s a lot easier to avoid a thing if you’re the only one who knows you’re avoiding it.
Don’t be afraid to make changes.
I had an academic advisor who was really hands-off. If I didn’t email (which could stretch for months at a time), she wouldn’t email me. She believed grad school was for grown-ups who shouldn’t be hand-held. She wasn’t mean about it. It was just how she moved through the world. This style just happened to clash with my avoidant way of moving through the world. It stressed me out constantly, and I made very little progress on my work.
Eventually, I switched to a more compatible advisor. The logistics of the transition were difficult, but in the long run, it was so much better. Instead of constantly being critical or frustrated with yourself, see if there are changes you can make that work better with your patterns.
Ask someone to do it for or with you.
If it’s a task that you’re avoiding, ask someone to do it for you. If you’re avoiding calling the bank, have someone else dial the number. If you’re avoiding going to the doctor, have someone go with you. I frequently ask friends to read email I’m nervous about. Sometimes it takes off just enough edge to help you face a thing.
Try not to avoid care or help.
“I can’t go see my therapist this week. I missed my last appointment.”
“I can’t call my sister. I never called her back the last two times.”
I’ve witnessed these thoughts so often, in myself and others. This is easier said than done, but try not to let avoidance keep you from your support system, especially if you’re going through a hard time.
Practice facing the small things.
I avoid high-risk and high-stress things, but I also avoid the little random things too. There are so many times when I’ll pick up an electric bill or read a text message and promptly put it down. I’ll pay that later. I’ll respond to that later. But later never comes. Now I try and do these tasks as soon as possible. I like to face things head-on, like a muscle I’m building, with these more trivial things. Doing so also helps those trivial things from becoming the big things.
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Be aware of the difference between thinking about doing something and actually doing the thing.
Thinking about doing something you don’t want to do can take up so much time and energy. I can think about doing something for so long and so hard that I completely lose sight of the fact that I haven’t actually made any moves towards it. It’s important for me to constantly check in with what’s action and what’s thought. This is an especially helpful area for your safety net to sweep in.
Budget more time.
If you know ideally something should take you two minutes or two hours, just assume you won’t be operating at your most efficient and give yourself bonus time.
Lower the bar.
Maybe you just can’t bring yourself to face whatever it is you’re avoiding. That happens. But try not to ignore or drop it completely. See if there is a small step you can take towards it. If you’ve been avoiding a person that you’ve been meaning to have some elaborate reunion dinner with to make up for lost time (I run through so many of these hypothetical scenarios in my head), and you can’t bring yourself to call them to invite them to this hypothetical event, instead try texting a “Hey, thinking of you.”
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You tried different steps, but you still avoided the thing. And now you have to deal with late fees, missed opportunities, a damaged relationship, and so on. Do your best to take on responsibility. Avoidance can burn a lot of bridges and cause a bunch of harm, so often this means apologizing – even if it means apologizing to yourself.
There can be a lot of guilt and shame when it comes to dealing with the consequences of avoiding all the things life asks of us. The questions boil up: “Why didn’t I just do it?” “How did I end up here again?” Try to be soft with yourself. Avoidance is often a symptom of deeper things going on like depression or anxiety. Be compassionate for past you and whatever feelings you had that caused you to cope by using avoidance. And try and commit to making shifts in the future.[Featured Image: Person sits indoors on ground and back against the wall wearing jeans and a black hoodie with their face down in their arms. Source: Pexels.com.]