Avoidance: What You Need to Know

Let's just do it tomorrow.

Posted Oct 23, 2020

 fandijki/iStock
Source: fandijki/iStock

"Etymologically, 'procrastination' is derived from the Latin verb procrastinare — to put off until tomorrow." —Charlotte Lieberman

“The best way out is always through.” —Mark Twain

Avoidance is a behavior that undermines self-esteem and agency. This post is for the parents of teens who struggle with procrastination and avoidance. And, for adults who are starting on the road of change.

Avoidance Is Nothing New:

Momma is probably the first word that infants learn.

It’s about attachment and love. Daddy is usually word number two.

But word number three is usually “No.”

“No” is the word used by young children to express what they don’t want. It helps define them, because they are not always going to want to do what they are asked to do. But, at some point “just saying no” loses some of its importance as the child learns that complying is a surer way to get the love and warmth they want.

Yet, very few youngsters actually give up the wish to have things their way.

They learn two new techniques, which are both related:

Both are among the earliest ways that human beings deal with conflict

They are essentially the same thing.

  • With lying, you avoid dealing with a problem by claiming it isn’t true. If you are caught, you’ll deal with it later.
  • With avoidance, you lie to yourself by putting something off that’s to be dealt with now.

Lying involves words; avoidance involves deeds.

Both are normal from a developmental point of view. But, if we don’t grow out of them, we suffer. Neither technique works in adult life.

Normal Lying:

Don’t get overly concerned if your 5-year-old lies when he spills the milk. “It wasn’t me!” Your 10-year-old, however, knows better.

Consider a classic comedy sketch.

Dad enters the kitchen to find his 5-year-old daughter with her hand in the cookie jar. They catch each other's gaze. The daughter thinks for a moment, and then takes a cookie out and says: “It’s for you.”

This sleight of hand is completely age-appropriate. Five-year-olds lie in order to avoid getting caught and punished. Hopefully, we all outgrow this way of dealing with problems.

In summary, avoidance is a form of lying. A person has a task or a problem and tells herself that she can do it later. This is a manipulation of the self, which, like dishonesty, has its origins in childhood. Avoidance can be mild and inconsequential or it can be serious.

Procrastination and Avoidance:

People often want to avoid things that are difficult or raise anxiety. It's natural. One technique is to avoid dealing with the problem altogether. You avoid homework, a task at work, a problem in your relationship, or going to the doctor with the magical hope that the problem will self-correct without attention. Not a good bet.

Procrastination is a form of avoidance. Here the mind reassures itself that the task will be dealt with... just later. Often, later never comes, and there is a price to be paid.

Procrastination is a form of self-deceit. Some would argue that it is a form of self-harm.

Often, outside support can help because procrastination is most powerful when no one is looking; hence the proliferation of life coaches, personal trainers, and tutors.

ADD and Avoidance:

The ADD mind is constantly distracted and hard tasks are often dropped because of a distraction, like video gaming, television, eating, or texting. Because few Attention Deficit Disordered folks seem a good sense of time, they tell themselves the job will get done, and never get to it.

The mind is remarkably convincing, and the ADD patient accepts the rationalizations with the bonus that he doesn’t have to think about the problem at hand and can have fun at the same time.

Avoidance and procrastination are greased by the attention issues and vice versa. 

With ADD, the mind has a tough time staying on tasks, especially those that demand effort and are not fun – like schoolwork or a college paper. If on top of it, a child, teen, or young adult has natural difficulties in writing or math, you will find them drifting off when tackling the hard subject, shifting to something else altogether as a means to avoid their work.

With ADD and avoidance, you often have a combination of a learning issue (writing, math, or both), made worse by the attention problem, and made impossible by an avoidant mind.

As a parent, you find your 14-year-old son surfing the internet or playing a video game when you thought he was in his room working. Or, your 16-year-old daughter tells you there’s no math homework tonight—and is busy with social media—and then you hear from her teacher two weeks later that a number of assignments had not been turned in. Or your 20-year-old drops out of college after swearing that the work had been done.

Sound familiar?

Addictions and Avoidance:

Many young people with untreated Attention Deficit Disorder are at risk of developing an addiction as they grow up. There are many reasons for this. Some feel badly and self medicate. Others get hooked by impulsive decision-making. And still others get into addictive behavior because it’s their default way to avoid what they have to do.

Alcohol and drugs make people feel good temporarily; and the dopamine rush of gambling, shopping, intense relationships, gaming, and sex addictions do as well. If you want to avoid something, why not transition to a pleasurable behavior and seal the deal?

Addictions don’t require attention issues to get going. The urge for an addictive pleasure can have its origins in impulsivity, depression, abuse, or simply a genetic vulnerability. There are so many kinds of addictions because the brain easily habituates to a loop of immediate pleasure, particularly when it is being tasked to do something it doesn’t like.

The key to understanding addictions is that once the brain gets habituated to an addiction, it takes on a powerful life of its own. Life gets framed around addictive behavior.

The Avoidant Mind plays a key role in keeping addictions going.

  • The mind says to itself that it’s okay to engage in this one act of addiction, say gambling. “I’ll go to Las Vegas this one last time, and then I’m done.” 
  • Or, for the person with substance use disorder, “I’ll just taste some bourbon, but I won’t get drunk this time.”
  • Or, for the person addicted to shopping, “I’ll go get myself a bunch of fantastic dresses or shoes, and that will be enough, I’ll stop.”
  • Or, for the person addicted to gaming, “I’ve got to see what this great new game is like. I’ll get back to my (school) work in just a second.”

Note, that this self-destructive thinking may have roots in early life, when a child fails to realize that avoidance has consequences. Avoidance is the way the mind fools itself into putting things off; often indefinitely.

Depression/Anxiety and Avoidance:

Finally, common psychological problems like depression and anxiety can be linked to avoidant behaviors. One can be anxious about a problem like school work, and get triggered into avoiding it as a consequence. Or, you can be depressed and not have the motivation to take on a challenge, and thus avoid it as well. The problem is that the issue does not go away, but just leads to more anxiety or depression, only to produce more avoidance.

A good therapist can help untangle this knot. It involves identifying the nature or the depression or anxiety, and assessing whether the avoidant behavior is simply a symptom or a contributing factor. It is work worth doing.

The Avoidant Mind — Treatment:

  • Attention Deficit Disorder requires treatment. Letting attention issues go without intervening can have a negative impact over time. While I’m not a fan of reflexively medicating, getting an evaluation by a good psychiatrist can make a huge difference. ADD often comes bundled with avoidance, a learning problem, and sometimes with a poor fit with parents or with the school. Sometimes anxiety or mood issues complicate the picture. Everything needs to be looked at in order to justify medicating and to optimize a good outcome. 
  • Avoidant behavior and Attention Deficit Disorder are a common combination. Sometimes medication helps a lot, but it’s a good idea to have kids (and adults) with ADD work with a therapist in order to truly understand how their minds work. There’s often an avoidant moment that can be fixed. That moment when Charlie goes to the bathroom, only to go to the refrigerator, only to go to a video game, all when “taking a short break” from his work. This is avoidance, and it works efficiently to undermine Charlie’s efforts to get good grades. Awareness and hard work, coupled with the appropriate medications and classroom interventions can make all the difference.
  • Addictive Disorders require treatment. The mind of a person with an addiction is slippery for those who are trying to help. Never underestimate the power of the addiction itself, which is fundamentally pleasure-seeking and biologically ingrained. Then there is the ritualistic loop that governs many addictions. We all have life stress, but with addiction, this stress leads to avoidance, which leads to the pleasurable behavior (the addiction), which leads to momentary relief, which leads often to shame, which leads to self-justification, which leads to avoidance. 
  • Avoidant Behavior and Addictions. People with addictive issues usually wait until things go very badly before they get treatment: they can’t get up for work, they accumulate massive debt, or they fail out of college. The brain gets habituated to the drug or the dopamine rush that makes the person’s day. And, without active support, whether it’s individual, group, medication, or all three, the brain will continue to do what it’s been programmed to do. Addictions are powerful and avoidance plays a huge role in perpetuating the problem.
  • Avoidant Behavior and Depression/Anxiety. There are excellent treatments nowadays for depression and anxiety. In order to be most helpful, your clinician must understand how avoidance plays itself out in your life. It can be a source of shame. Or, a way that you undermine yourself, or simply a symptom among others. Most importantly, avoidant patients often avoid getting the very treatments that they need, a most unfortunate irony.

Conclusion:

The Avoidant Mind has its origins in early childhood. It’s normal for youngsters to lie and avoid. Eventually, they grow out of it because there are consequences to avoiding assignments or lying to one’s parents. Healthy children learn that competence is the best way to deal with problems as they arise and to reach out for help when it seems too much.

Attention Deficit Disorder, Addictive Disorders other psychological issues may be worsened by avoidant thinking. It’s an important factor to consider when treating these problems.

  • The Avoidant Mind can make ADD and ADHD more severe, which often can be remediated by good individual therapy, even when the child (or adult) is benefiting from medication.
  • The Avoidant Mind is often a root cause of addiction problems. Good treatment, whether it’s a 12-step or individual therapy, must nail down avoidant thinking and keep it in check. Otherwise, the addiction will certainly injure the patient and those that he or she loves.
  • The Avoidant Mind can also be part of a depressive or anxious presentation. Therapy and intelligently used medication (when indicated) can make a huge difference. With the right approach, outcomes can be very good.

Thanks to Gabriel Banschick for editing and formatting.