In Practice

Putting social psychology to work for you

Avoidance Coping

Avoidance coping plays an important role in common psychological problems.

When I first mention "avoidance coping" people tend to assume I just mean procrastinating, but in psychology-speak, avoidance means something a bit different. 

Avoidance coping creates stress and anxiety, and ravages self-confidence. It's is a major factor that differentiates people who have common psychological problems (e.g., depression, anxiety, and/or eating disorders) vs. those you don’t.

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The first step to overcoming avoidance coping is to learn to recognize it (at the time you're doing it).

Here are 9 types of avoidance coping to look out for.

1. You avoid taking actions that trigger painful memories from the past.

For example, you avoid asking questions in class because it reminds you of a time you asked a question and the teacher embarrassed you.

Or, you avoid going to a professor's office hours because she gave you a disappointing grade last semester and the thought of approaching her retriggers your feelings about the grade. 

Avoiding things that trigger difficult memories is one of the most important and common types of avoidance coping.

2. You try to stay under the radar.

People who have a sense of defectiveness often try to stay “under the radar.” They often fear things like being kicked of university, or their success feels fraudulent to them. They feel like if they're noticed, their flaws will be revealed.

3. You avoid reality testing your thoughts.

For example, you’re worried your child is on the autism spectrum and you put your head in the sand or just read stuff on the internet rather than seek a professional assessment.

4. You try to avoid the potential for people being mad at you.

For example, you avoid asking for things you want in case the person gets mad at your for asking.

People who are very concerned about others potentially being mad at them might just be people-pleasers, or they may have anxiety about rejection. You might’ve had experiences of anger leading to rejection. or just have an anxious attachment style.

In most situations, anger doesn’t lead to rejection.

Often trying to avoid experiencing other people being angry backfires and you end up doing things that are more likely to cause anger e.g., you avoid telling someone you can't go to an event, squeeze it in and then end up arriving really late.

5. You have a tendency to stop working on a goal when an anxiety-provoking thought comes up.

For example, you tend to quit difficult goals or tasks if you start thinking “This is hard” or “I’m not sure if I’m going to be able to do this.”

Accept that these types of thoughts are often par of the course when working on difficult goals (Also make sure you’re taking enough breaks).

6. You avoid feeling awkward.

You avoid potentially awkward conversations not so much because you fear the consequences but because you have a tendency to avoid any feelings of awkwardness.

When you start allowing yourself to experience awkwardness, you’ll realize it’s not that bad and you can cope.

7. You avoid starting a task if you don’t know how you’re going to finish it.

Don’t worry about all the steps, just do the first logical step. Action is much more likely to produce new insights than ruminating.

8. You avoid certain physical sensations.

This is especially common in people prone to panic attacks. 

Examples:

- Unfit people (and people with panic disorder) sometimes avoid sensations of exertion e.g., avoid getting their heart rate up during exercise.

- People with body image issues might avoid sexual sensations that activate their body image concerns.

- Overeaters sometimes avoid feeling even a little bit hungry i.e., they eat before they feel sensations of hunger.

9. You avoid entering situations that may trigger thoughts like “I’m not the best. I’m not as good as other people.”

If your sense of self-worth is based on being better than average in all important areas, you’ll struggle with situations that trigger unfavorable social comparison.

This can really hold you back from improving in areas where you’re not strong.

Practice exposing yourself to people who are better than you in areas where you’d like to improve.

Expecting yourself to be better than average at everything, or expecting yourself to be good at things with extensive practice, is a recipe for misery!

Related

Intolerance of Uncertainty

Procrastination tips for the experts.

The psychology of procrastination and anxiety.

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photo credits: charlesdyeweegeeboredJuditK via photopin cc

Alice Boyes, Ph.D. translates principles from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and social psychology into tips people can use in their everyday lives.

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