How to Recognise and Address Your Emotional Avoidance
By Dr Becky Spelman
We all experience situations we’d rather not deal with from time to time. But there is a difference between hesitation and the act of emotional avoidance. Blocking out unwanted distractions is normal. If we need to maintain concentration on a task that’s mentally demanding, it does no good to be emotionally ungrounded. There is a time and place for dealing with our emotions. And managing them in a conscious manner is often a necessity.
The problem arises when this avoidance becomes an avoidance of responsibility. This refers to any action designed not just to delay but to prevent the occurrence of uncomfortable emotions. These most often include feelings such as fear, sadness, shame and guilt.
How Does Emotional Avoidance Take Hold?
In many instances, emotional avoidance is the result of trauma that is simply too painful to deal with at the time – or that you may not have the capacity to deal with. This causes us to bury these events deep inside. But this isn’t the only way that avoidance can become your primary coping mechanism. It is, of course, most commonly associated with cases of abuse. However, it can also be present in times of grief when there is a sense of denial at play as well as in our interpersonal relationships. In this case, emotions can be bottled up so tight that there is a refusal to engage in any kind of reparation or reconciliation process because it will challenge the emotional status quo.
The fallacy of this position is that negative emotions aren’t here to cause you harm. They’re actually here to protect you. Negative emotions help us recognise what will we and will not accept. Our feelings form part of our ’emotional vocabulary’ and provide a point of reference, and offer the chance to examine where we’re at in relation to our current experiences. If we were all walking around as emotional blank slates, our experience would be flat. There would be little worth celebrating as everything would be met with the same gesture of indifference. Life would be coloured several shades of grey.
Why Emotional Avoidance is Only Delaying the Inevitable
Avoiding negative emotions is a short-term fix. You can only suppress your feelings for so long before they must be expressed. You can’t run away from them indefinitely. And just as many women have a biological clock that rings louder and louder the closer they get to optimum child-bearing age – we all similarly have an emotional alarm clock. And every time you fail to address your issues, it’s set ticking silently in the background, waiting to create a crisis situation in the future that seemingly comes out of nowhere – causing you to finally address your issues.
Avoidance is a trap that we create for ourselves. One that can serve as a source of comfort and refuge as we build up a repertoire of behaviours, which allow us to distract ourselves from what’s going on inside. On the subconscious level, we feel that everything is above board. However, these habit patterns we create for ourselves have a tendency to run out of control. Over time, you can even avoid things, people and places that might serve as triggers for having to confront these uncomfortable truths. It can cause you to completely alter your routine and create a lifestyle based around avoidance, whether you do this knowingly or unknowingly.
Using Self-Monitoring and Mindfulness to Your Advantage
As much as you can and should seek help if you aren’t sufficiently equipped to address your avoidance issues, there’s still a measure of personal responsibility that’s required. You need to step outside of yourself and view your behaviour with a sense objectivity. The more skilled you can become in identifying patterns through hindsight and reflection, the better you’ll be able to stop yourself from giving in to your self-limiting and destructive tendencies.
You can keep mental notes, but the mind can play tricks on us. And given this is an issue with avoidance, it would be far more effective to have your findings written in black and white. Once you’ve committed your thoughts to paper, they’re absolute. They can’t be altered. Thoughts, on the other hand, can be pushed aside and edited by the subtle programs that are running you on the subconscious level. At least on the outset, it would be highly recommended that you start a small journal. It can be a small notepad, a google doc or even a notes application on your phone. It doesn’t matter what you choose. The key is in choosing a medium you’re likely to engage with regularly. To really make any progress, you need to be consistent with your observations and your entries.
How to Get Over Your Emotional Avoidance with Therapeutic Approaches
Ultimately the best way to manage your emotional avoidance is through the creation of healthier coping mechanisms. These differ from addicting habits patterns in that they’re built on conscious choice. They’re a response to your circumstances in the form of self-care and self-nurture instead of a subconscious reaction. In addition to this, therapy can provide a further oppurtunity to understand the mechanisms behind your avoidance so you can make long-lasting changes to your lifestyle.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is one of the most effective and attractive forms of therapy as it directly addresses the sponsoring thought behind your emotions in the present. In doing so, it takes a very practical and proactive approach to readdress your current behaviours.
This means that courses of CBT therapy are generally short-term, lasting approximately eight weeks. As the focus is on current life events rather than exploring deeply repressed memories, it is a much more engaging and co-creative process other forms of therapy.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy differs from CBT in that it centres directly on the breaking down of avoidance. From there, the focus is on helping you funnel your new-found energy into accepting responsibility for your emotions instead of fighting them or feeling guilty.
It is often paired with mindfulness-based therapy to provide a clinically effective treatment. In essence, it is still very much a behavioural therapy, but with an emphasis on the acceptance of self in all your of guises whether it be in a positive or perceived negative light.
About the author:
Dr Becky Spelman is a leading UK Psychologist who’s had great success helping her clients manage and overcome a multitude of mental illnesses.
***If you’re struggling with your mental health and think you might benefit from speaking to someone, we offer a FREE 15-MINUTE CONSULTATION with one of our specialists to help you find the best way to move forward. You can book yours here
Very Well Mind. (24th March 2020) Why People With PTSD Use Emotional Avoidance to Cope. Retrieved on 17th June, 2020 from, https://www.verywellmind.com/ptsd-and-emotional-avoidance-2797640#:~:text=Avoidance%20refers%20to%20any%20action,use%20of%20substances%20or%20dissociation.
Psycom. (8th Jan 2019) Repressed Anger and Emotional Avoidance: 5 Ways to Find the Positive in Negative Emotion. Retrieved on 18th June, 2020 from, https://www.psycom.net/emotional-avoidance-repressed-anger
How to Recognise and Address Your Emotional Avoidance was last modified: October 12th, 2020 by Dr Becky Spelman
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