It seems appropriate this month to write about a topic that I hear about from many of my clients. Why do I NOT do things that I know I need to do and will have consequences if I don’t? If we take a punitive approach, we may call ourselves lazy or unmotivated or disinterested. But in my experience, it is none of these.
Avoidance is a form of passive behaviour that acts in some way as a defence system. Huh? Yes, it helps us defend against difficult and stressful feelings we may not want to face. For some, it creates another reason to beat ourselves up with, sort of like a self-destructive behaviour but masked as passivity. Take for instance someone who doesn’t pay a bill or respond to a request in a timely fashion although they know there will be a consequence, usually negative, as a result. These feelings of dread hang around until the point of the negative consequence kicking in when often, the payoff is to be able to say “See? I knew that would happen; I am so…..(fill in the blank with a derogatory description of self)”
Avoidance is also about control and covering up the real feelings underneath which may be any combination of fear, anger, resentment, or sadness. Although it is a passive behaviour, it often communicates something underneath the surface. Not responding or passively not answering is a way of communicating through avoidance which, because it is unclear and confusing, often leads to miscommunication and ruptures in relationship.
The next time you feel yourself turning away from doing something, ask yourself what it is you are avoiding in that moment? What discomfort inside of you are you trying to get away from? Getting clear, first with oneself is the starting point of slowly changing this behaviour. The opposite of passivity is activity or action. When you sense your need to turn away or avoid, do the opposite, and start small. If you are usually the last one to answer a group invitation, try being the first, even if it is a “Sorry, I am unable to make it” See how it feels to be prompt, upfront and clear with your communication. Others are not able to read our minds and avoiders often think they should be and become resentful that they have not interpreted their silence correctly. This can lead to upset and hurt feelings on both sides.
We carry so many of our behaviours from childhood into our adult life like relics from our past. In therapy we have an opportunity to line up all of them and inspect and understand them in a way which allows us to choose whether we want to keep them or perhaps gently replace them for more self-enhancing and self-affirming behaviours which, support healthier relationships in all aspects of our lives. Avoidance behaviour can be changed once we see it, name it, understand it and then practice a different and more compassionate way of being with ourselves and others.