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Why We Avoid: The Allure of Avoidance

Written By Ashley Gray, LCSW, MFTC

Avoidance is the guilty pleasure that we often don't like to admit that we engage in, but love to call out in others. If you're being really honest with yourself, I bet there is something that you tend to avoid. Some avoid emotions, relationships, discomfort, confrontation, people, big tasks, the list goes on and on. If there is one thing I'm constantly doing as a therapist, it is helping people approach what they avoid, so that they don't have to live life in the shadows. When we face our fears, we meet our truest selves. So, let's explore why we avoid and what we can do about it.

For Relief

Avoidance runs rampant in our society. As a society, we love immediate relief. Avoidance is immediately gratifying. As soon as you decide to avoid, you immediately feel relief from the issue you were concerned about. Unfortunately, this also fuels your anxiety. The more you avoid, the more anxious you become. This is because you don't learn how to deal with your triggers until you decide to face them. The more you face them and get messy figuring out how to problem-solve your concerns, the more confidence you build. You learn how to trust yourself to take care of yourself. Then you don't need to avoid as much because you believe that you are capable of achieving great things. You open yourself up to a whole world of possibilities.

For Safety: Avoidant Attachment

Attachment is how we give and receive love based on how we have experienced it in the past. Attachment styles fall into four categories, Secure, Avoidant, Anxious and Disorganized. Secure attachment is the healthiest attachment style, as a person with a secure attachment trusts that their needs can be met in a relationship and that they can meet the other person's needs in a relationship. Someone with a secure relationship doesn't fear being by themselves or with someone else. They can calm themselves down well by themselves (self-regulation) or with someone else (co-regulate). Someone with an avoidant attachment fears losing themselves in a relationship, so they also prefer to calm down on their own (self-regulate) due to this fear. Those with an anxious attachment fear losing their relationship through abandonment. They prefer to calm with someone else (co-regulate) as it allows them to feel connected to someone else. When a person has a disorganized attachment, they fear their relationship and their own judgement. They fear being abandoned and losing themselves. They move rapidly between patterns that appear avoidant and those that appear anxious. Whether they prefer to self-regulate or co-regulate depends on which part of their attachment they are leaning into in that moment. If you want to learn more about attachment styles read this.

These attachment patterns can be formed based on our experiences with caregivers, parents, family, friends and romantic relationships. Any significant relationship can impact our attachment styles. We develop these attachment styles to protect ourselves from relational pain and to get our needs met. So when someone is avoiding in relationships by minimizing their relationship and focusing on their own autonomy, they are doing this to protect themselves from losing themselves in a relationship, which they have learned is common. So, what can you do instead?

What To Do Instead...

To learn how to stop avoiding, you start to learn how to lean into the discomfort. While simply put, it can be much harder in practice. As long as you are safe to do so, you can learn to stay with things that are uncomfortable for just a few more seconds or minutes. Coping skills or grounding skills will help you stay with the discomfort for a bit longer by helping you to get out of your head and into your body. This article by the Gottman Institute has some great techniques that will help you do just that. These techniques can help you in a number of different situations in which you tend to avoid.

As it applies to attachment styles, you can learn to lean into discomfort by learning how to regulate yourself in the way that is least comfortable for you. For those with an avoidant attachment this means learning how to co-regulate. I have a free 9-page guide that you can download to learn how to co-regulate, just click here. This guide will help you identify which forms of coping you are most and least comfortable with and help you ease into the less comfortable forms of regulating.

In shedding avoidance, it is also helpful to learn how to connect with yourself. If you don't allow feelings and connection within yourself, it is very difficult to engage in feelings and connection in your relationship. You can start connecting with yourself by noticing the sensations that show up in your body and emotions that follow, exploring values and hobbies, noticing patterns in your family and patterns in your behaviors and working with a therapist. Working with a therapist can be especially helpful as the therapist can help you identify blind spots where you don't even realize that you're not allowing connection within yourself, as well as helping you understand how those patterns have come to exist.

If You're With Someone Who Often Avoids

If you are exhausted, I mean, completely fed up and you're not sure how to get your partner to face what they consistently avoid, I understand. It is hard to see your partner deliberately avoid the thing that could make their life so much easier. If they could face that, it would probably make your life easier, too. But you can't force them.

You can help though. Perhaps, you have tried telling them what it is that they are avoiding and what they should do instead. However, that is only helpful if they are open to receiving direct feedback like that. If you haven't checked to see if they are open to such an approach, such direct information could scare them back into their avoidant corner, so to speak. What is more effective is to make things safe for them, this is an invitation to grow. People are most likely to reflect and choose to grow when they feel safe. How do you do that? You can start by listening when they share about their emotions, experiences and needs, being curious about the rest of their story, giving them space to process when they ask for it, let them know when they are getting it right or putting in a good effort and be supportive as they explore themselves. Here is how that can sound:

  • "It makes sense that you would feel that way."

  • "I think I would react in a similar way."

  • "What do you think you'll do next?"

  • "What do you need while you deal with this?"

  • "Is there a way that I can support you with this?"

  • "I'm glad that you told me what you needed. I want to show up for you and your needs."

  • "I'm glad that you asked for a break. Let me know when you think you'll be ready to return to this conversation."

  • "You seem overwhelmed, would you like to take a break from this conversation?" (if they aren't asking for a break when it seems they might benefit from one)

  • "I really appreciate that you have been making more of an effort to ______ lately. I know it isn't always easy, but it means a lot to me."

  • "I love seeing you get more in touch with yourself. I would love to hear more about that process if you're open to sharing."

It can take a lot of work to change patterns of avoidance or support someone as they lean into that work. It is okay to reach out for support through books, courses, group therapy, podcasts or individual or couples therapy. If you would like to work with me, you can use the contact buttons at the top of the page to call or email me.

I'm wishing you the best on your healing journey! :)

P.S. If you want to sign up for my newsletter, so that you don't miss a blog post and you get the latest information about free resources, services and news follow this link. There will be a pop-up on the page that will prompt you to sign up. If you get the pop-up after you sign up, you can use the yellow "x" in the corner of the page on your desktop or bottom of the page (you may have to scroll) on your phone to exit.

This post is written by individual and couples therapist, Ashley Gray of Arvada, Colorado. Ashley works with her clients using Gottman Method Couples Therapy, EMDR Trauma Therapy, Prepare and Enrich, attachment focused therapy and techniques from Emotionally Focused Therapy, Couples Intensives and EMDR Intensives. As a therapist, she is passionate about helping people build healthy relationships and supporting people with the resources they need. In her free time, Ashley hikes, paddle boards, reads, spends time with her husband and her cuddly dog. For more information about Ashley and her practice, click here.


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