We are human, and humans like to feel comfortable. Pretty much all of the time. It makes sense. We avoid what feels bad, scary, or hurtful. In fact, seminal psychological research in the 1950’s and 60’s by Kurt Lewin and Neal Miller showed that our avoidance tendencies tend to win out even over approaching pleasure, when these two motivators are in conflict.
Take my 11th grade self, for example. After asking my crush out to prom (approach!), I proceeded to spend the next three months leading up to said prom making sure I did my best to dodge all encounters, of any kind, with said prom date (avoidance!), in order to not deal with the anxiety and discomfort of conversation (or possible reciprocation of feelings). For me, the fear of possible of awkwardness far outweighed the satisfaction of possible connection and positive interaction. Phew, exhausting! (Thank goodness I got past 16).
Aside from prom dates, we tend to avoid in small ways throughout our day, without even realizing it, to our own detriments and enjoyment. For example, you may put off responding to that email even though you know it’s important, because finding the words is going to be difficult, you may avoid asking for that raise because you know your boss won’t like it, or you may say yes to making plans, even when not feeling it, to avoid the discomfort of a “no.” These are ways in which our avoidance can become self-defeating, a temporary measure to avoid feeling uncomfortable, with longer term consequences in life satisfaction.
Avoidance can become even more self-defeating, in larger ways, when we put off making big life decisions, like breaking up with a partner we’re no longer compatible with because the break feels more painful than staying, or delaying looking for that new job, despite hating cubicle life, because the process appears too daunting or time consuming (I don’t have a new resume, haven’t bought a new suit in years, can’t possibly live my dream, etc.).
I will raise my hand as guilty as anyone for playing the avoidance game. It’s sometimes snugly and cozy to remain right where we are, in the status quo (perhaps that’s why we’re still using a 226-year-old document to run our country today)… I digress.
So what are you to do if this is you?
First, look at why you are avoiding. You may be avoiding a very specific emotion that you do not wish to feel. Is is anger, fear, sadness, or shame? Feel the emotion, be with it, and acknowledge it as part of you, rather than some dark, shadowy corner you’d much rather attribute to <insert presidential candidate here>.
Next, what are the thoughts that start to emerge when you even think about taking that step forward that you’ve been putting off? It’s a guarantee that you’ll never ask your boss for a raise if you’ve somehow convinced yourself it’s already a definite “no,” or it’s going to put your job in jeopardy. How realistic are these thoughts and how attached to them are you? There are many ways that we as humans create stories in our heads about certain situations, relationships, and outcomes, mostly rooted in our fears, past experiences, and cultural lenses. Can you detach yourself from your nightmare scenario long enough to see where your lens has been colored? Can you brush aside or release the power of the self-defeating thoughts which are pushing you away from your desired outcome? This will make room for the new ones…
Try to embrace and envision the pleasure and triumph of a smooth and best-case scenario. While we may not always achieve it, just opening up the possibility of the positive in our brains can make us feel more assured and confident, so that when we do actually take the leap over the avoidance cliff our bodies are not in high-alert, flight-or-fight mode. Just practicing the small jumps across the rocky terrain towards our desires (and gaining successes, or at least a bolder skill set in handling failure) can build us up for the large catapults. Leaps are meant to be scary. They’ll never stop being scary, but if we stop just at the edge of the ledge, we’ll never really know what’s on the other side. And in taking the leap, regardless of outcome, we’ll always have the satisfaction of knowing we reached, and we cared enough to go for it.
But don’t just take my word for it! I leave you with words of Theodore Roosevelt….
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”