Confession: For nearly ten years of my adult life I lived as an “avoider”. In fact, while speaking to a close friend about it recently I came to the realization that from my early-twenties to my early-thirties, avoidance was often my drug of choice.
Like many other addictions, it began rather innocently and as an attempt at self-protection. I avoided minor uncomfortable situations or conversations, and I told myself that this behavior was the responsible thing to do because it was helping me remain calm, happy and focused. After all, I reasoned, I was a young working woman and I had enough stress in my life already. Letting any difficult or discomfort into my mind or “my space” could rock my fragile boat and was simply not an option. So I chose to avoid small things: minor tension in a friendship or relationship, a touchy conversation with a family member, a gym class that I thought would be too challenging or out of my comfort zone…
Before long the avoidance became a habit, and I slid down a slippery slope avoiding bigger things:
Feeling flustered trying to figure out my bookkeeping? Avoid it by outsourcing, just sign the checks, pretend it doesn’t exist as much as possible. Unhappy tension seeping into a relationship? Keep busy, work as much as possible, find a way to talk about everything else except the issues that are hanging out like an elephant in a fluorescent, polka-dot dress in the room. Facing a next-level challenging project or a personal writing assignment requiring me to “put it all out there”, risk failure, or dig deeper than I’m used to? Get so busy and preoccupied doing the things I’m already good at and in control of that I have an excuse (in my head) for why I can’t begin or end the riskier project.
Like many bad habits that we think are helping us, it was actually doing opposite for me:
1) The things I was avoiding didn’t disappear from my life.
Just because I was trying to do my best not to think about them, experience them or face them didn’t mean they no longer existed. In fact, they often existed in an even larger way, and my awareness of their presence always existed deep within me.
2) The discomfort I was attempting to avoid actually began to grow and accumulate.
You see, while we avoid things in an attempt to protect and shelter ourselves, our minds and our hearts, the act of avoidance begins to hurt us in all of those areas even more. The pit in my stomach grew, the distracting thoughts in my mind got louder, and the real-life impact of letting personal or professional issues go unattended started bubbling up to the surface. The peace I felt was never true peace, it was a temporary, surface level peace. It wasn’t the full body and soul exhale I wanted and needed. Because here’s the thing: The more you hide from the things that make you uncomfortable, the more they grow…
3) A voice that was once buried deep within me became a whisper calling for change, and that whisper began to get louder and louder…
I could quote Anais Nin all day long, and this quote in particular really summed up what happened to me when I began to break my habit of avoidance:
When one is pretending the whole body revolts. – Anais Nin
I love it because that is truly what begins to happen. I don’t need to explain what stress and anxiety (both on the surface and buried in your subconscious) can do to your body, let alone your mind and your soul. One thing I will tell you is that like anything you need to change in your life – from your weight to your self-defeating behaviors – the change only happens when you really want it to happen. Usually, we really want it to happen when we cannot physically or mentally not have it happen anymore. I didn’t like how it felt to pretend everything was okay in situations that it wasn’t okay. I didn’t like the awareness of things not being right or sorted swirling around in my head when I was trying to sleep. I couldn’t be “half present” in my life as I’d been in the past because, in order to have a life I really loved, I had to participate in it fully. My body was revolting, my soul was calling out for a change, and I was ready to listen. I didn’t like pretending anymore, so one day I stopped.
Here’s a truth I discovered when I did this…
Preventing yourself from fully feeling, saying, experiencing every part of your life is, therefore, stunting your personal growth and blocking you from happiness.
If you’re reading this right now you already know that life doesn’t go the way we plan, no matter how much we want to control and script it. But burying your head in the sand or avoiding real life moments (good and bad) doesn’t make it go any better. In reality – the reality so many of us are robbing ourselves by avoiding – by letting life play out honestly and authentically, being present and experiencing it in all its wondrous ups and downs, your life can become more beautiful and perfect in its imperfection than you could have scripted it on your own. And that’s exactly what happened to me. Uncomfortable moments paved the pathway to beautiful breakthroughs. Each time I faced things and remained fully present and engaged in whatever life had to offer me I felt calmer, stronger, more alive and more myself than I had in a very long time.
It would be unfair to simplify or sugarcoat the process of making the regular choice to deal with the tough and no-so-sexy parts of life because it isn’t always easy. But it’s necessary. It’s also an ongoing, lifelong challenge for myself and I’d wager to say, for most of us.
Instead, I’d love to give you some strategies that I’ve used in my own life that made the journey out of the land of avoidance not only bearable but actually quite beautiful.
How to Break Out of the Avoidance Habit:
- Adopt this mantra: Face It and Fix It. This became a battle cry for me in my head, and sometimes out loud. I liked it because unlike simply facing things that made me uncomfortable, this phrase reminded me that they weren’t permanent situations, I could come full circle, and they didn’t define me. Face it, fix it, move on.
- Talk about it with your tribe: You aren’t meant to go through this (this as in the situation, this as in stressful moments, this as in life) on your own. Do you want to feel better while facing down uncomfortable situations? You want to stop avoiding meaningful moments or procrastinating? Turn to those you love. Talk about what scares you, stresses you out, what you avoid and why…help them help you. The beautiful thing about doing this is that by opening up about our own challenges they instantly begin to lose their power over us. You’ll be reminded that you’re not alone in your quest to break this habit and you’ll get insight into how to face and fix the things you’re avoiding from people you trust and value who have your best interest at heart. Finally (bonus prize!), you’ll find that your relationship will be undeniably deepened by your openness.
- Start Before You’re Ready: Want to know the fastest way to begin an uncomfortable conversation? Start having it. Want to fix your financial problems? Begin opening the mail you’ve been tossing in a drawer or box. Wish you were able to run a 5K but you think you’ll never be a runner? Show up at the gym, get on a treadmill, and press GO. Put one foot in front of the other figuratively or literally and let things begin to happen. You don’t have to be amazing, you don’t even have to be mediocre, you just have to try. You don’t have to have the answers or the plan meticulously laid out. In fact, over-planning and waiting for perfect conditions before beginning are traits many of us avoiders have mastered, you just have to start.
One Final Thought:
I’ve got one more piece of good news for you: You don’t even have to wait for the actual resolution of the situation you’re avoiding to feel the peace you were trying to create for yourself and to get your “exhale moment”. Instead, it’s in the moment when you break free from avoidance that you’ll begin to get the relief you’ve been longing for, and your soul’s call for comfort will finally be answered.
And the day came when the risk to remain right in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom. – Anais Nin
How do you face things you’re tempted to avoid? I’m always excited to add new strategies to my arsenal and posts. Please share your ideas in the comments below!