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Understanding Your Avoidance

Avoidance is about control, and it can have unintended consequences.

Key points

  • Avoidance provides temporary relief from anxiety, shame, and other uncomfortable feelings.
  • This is a form of emotional control, and controlling thoughts and feelings can have unintended consequences.
  • You can begin letting go of unnecessary control by mapping out the costs to your life of your control efforts.

This blog is about living courageously. It’s about getting to know your patterns of avoidance and doing something different. But first, you have to learn how your avoidance works.

You Do, You Get, Redux

In our last blog, we introduced you to a simple phrase to understand human behavior: You do, you get.

  • When you stay home, you don’t have to worry about what folks will think of you at that party.
  • When you feel anxious, you have a drink and feel less anxious.
  • When you feel sad, you start scrolling on your phone, and sadness fades into the background.
  • When you feel hurt or vulnerable, you yell at your spouse and feel a small release of the anger.

The stuff you get is important—it determines, at least in part, whether you do the thing again or whether you stop. If drinking in social situations eases your feelings of awkwardness or discomfort, you are more likely to continue drinking. If avoiding the party reduces your anxiety, you are more likely to avoid social interaction in other ways as well—such as not returning your friends’ calls, not answering those emailed invitations, and so on.

Avoidance Works… Somewhat

Avoidance works well sometimes. Like we said before, when you avoid, you get something—often a temporary reprieve from feeling uncomfortable. When you procrastinate doing your taxes, you get to put off the anxiety that shows up when you face your financial life. If you don’t speak up in a work meeting, you get temporary freedom from worrying about what your colleagues think of your ideas. But obviously, there are costs. If you procrastinate on your taxes, you might feel a lingering dread. If you never speak up at work, your great ideas will rarely be part of the conversation, and you might become more worried about what people think over time because you never get any feedback.

Can you see how avoidance is really about control? As humans, we love control. When you avoid things, you get to exert a measure of control over all of that uncomfortable stuff by staying away from the situations that might evoke it. But controlling, especially controlling through avoiding, doesn’t really work as well as we think it does.

Photo by Ketut Subiyanto from Pexels
Controlling through avoiding doesn't work as well as we think it does.
Source: Photo by Ketut Subiyanto from Pexels

Control on the Outside Versus Control on the Inside

There’s a difference between controlling stuff outside of our heads (in the world) versus inside our heads. We can control a lot of stuff in our immediate environment. If it’s too dark in the room, you can open the shades or turn on a light. If there’s dirt on the floor, you can sweep it up. Assuming we don’t have physical differences that would get in the way, we can easily control what we do with our hands, feet, and voices. If you need to walk across the room, you just do it.

However, the stuff inside of us isn’t always so amenable to direct control. If I asked you not to think of a white bear for 60 seconds, what do you think would happen? You don’t have to think very hard to get the answer: you would think more about white bears. Our experience tells us this. So does our science; there’s a whole body of research to confirm this phenomenon.

Control: Is It a Feature or a Bug?

But if controlling the stuff between our ears doesn’t work the way we want it to, why do we keep trying to do it? Is it a bug in our programming? Or maybe it is just an extension of something we’ve evolved to do over the course of our history as a species: avoiding threats.

Humans are at the top of the food chain. But we don’t have sharp teeth or claws. We don’t even run very fast. And yet, we are arguably the world’s most successful predator—for better or worse. We’ve traded in our pointy bits for the most powerful weapon of all—our cerebral cortex. It’s an amazing feature that allows us to do all sorts of abstract thinking and planning and problem-solving. It allows us to think about the past and future and to learn indirectly, from mental rules, rather than from direct experience. And thank goodness! Otherwise we’d have to get knocked down by a car in order to learn how to look both ways before crossing a street.

The only problem is that what we perceive as threats are different from when we were living during the stone age. It’s that pesky inside-outside problem again.

Unintended Consequences

The problem is not just that control doesn’t work the way we hope it will. There are other consequences as well. The more we try to tighten our control, the less attention we can pay to other things in the outside world. The more we try to avoid, the stronger the need to avoid gets. And the smaller and smaller our lives become.

What’s the alternative? You’ve heard the expression, “feel the fear and do it anyway”?

Teeny Tiny Practice: Map the Cost of Control

Grab a notebook and write down something that you struggle with. It should be something that gives you a little bit of a stomach ache to think of, and something that you maybe try not to think about often.

  1. What thoughts or feelings do you notice when you think about this struggle? Anxiety? Shame? Thoughts like, “I’m not good enough”? Write down whatever you notice.
  2. What are some actions you have taken to try to fix, solve, or eliminate these thoughts and feelings? These could include some of the following: procrastinating, avoiding being vulnerable with other people about it, staying away from situations that might remind you of it, criticizing others, etc. Whatever you’ve tried, write it down. They can be things we usually label as “unhealthy” as well as things we usually label as “healthy.”
  3. What are some mental tricks you have tried to deal with this struggle? These could be things like: problem-solving, trying to figure out “why?” criticizing yourself, worrying, thinking “if only…”, thinking “what if?” imagining big changes in your life, maybe even imagining you weren’t alive.
  4. Now, circle everything that works in the short term, at least a little bit, to tamp down these thoughts and feelings.
  5. Put a star by everything that works in the long term.
  6. Finally, underline everything that brings you closer to a vital, vibrant, and more meaningful life.

What do you notice? Write your observations down in your notebook.

Here’s what we hope you notice: that almost everything works a little bit in the short term. Remember: you do, you get. We wouldn’t do these things if they didn’t have at least some kind of minor impact on what we think and feel.

We also hope you notice that most, if not all of them, don’t make your thoughts and feelings go away in the long term. Whatever you do, “healthy” or “unhealthy,” you will likely still experience painful thoughts and uncomfortable emotions. That’s just how we are built.

We also want you to notice that some behaviors don’t make your feelings go away, but they do help you build the life you want to lead.

Finally—and this insight is a big deal—consider how sometimes your behavior can be about trying to avoid and control your internal experiences, and other times it can be about building a life you want. That’s a really important difference to notice. What we’d like is for your behavior to begin to be less and less about ineffective and unnecessary control strategies. Instead, more and more, you’ll act to build that meaningful life you want.

Portions of this text are adapted from Stop Avoiding Stuff: 25 Microskills to Face Your Fears and Do It Anyway by the authors.


Wegner, D. M. (2009). How to think, say, or do precisely the worst thing for any occasion. Science, 325, 48–50. doi:10.1126/science.1167346

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