Dangers of avoidance
We constantly feel like we are waging a war with life: fighting for our happiness and trying the beat down the things that make us feel bad. If we can change the negative situations in our life we just need the strength to change them and face our fears. But sometimes we can’t change our situation: Does this mean we have no choice but to suffer?
Absolutely not! Whilst we may have uncomfortable situations in our life, and may even have significant physical or psychological pain, this does not mean we have to suffer. Suffering comes about due to the way we relate to pain. This strategy is associated with ‘acceptance’, which is the first step in letting go of the suffering.
Imagine we were stuck in quicksand. There are no ropes or branches to help us get out. Normally when we step in something we fear we usually struggle to get out. Normally the most effective way is to run out of the uncomfortable situation, but not in the case of quicksand. If we try and lift our foot out of quicksand all of our weight transfers to the other foot and we sink this foot in further. The best thing to do when stuck in quicksand it to actually distribute your weight evenly by lying down. This seems crazy and counter-intuitive to maximise your body contact with something you want to get out of, but in this case it is actually helpful. Our own lives are like this, but unfortunately our quicksand seems to pop up at every corner. Most of our deepest worries have been around for years and if we don’t address our issues they will stay with us . When we worry about things we try and problem solve them. This is where the mind is often most helpful; In trying to figure out strategies to solve the uncomfortable situations we must face as part of life. Yet sometimes no matter how much we try and solve certain problems, we can’t seem to make them disappear. We may have a parent we struggle to get along with, a child who we clash with, a boss who we think is unreasonable, and yet no matter how much we think about the situation, we can’t seem to make the situation go away. Sometimes our problem solving mind can actually create more issues for us in certain situations, and sometimes it is time to flick the switch and try something
We all suffer at some point: we haven’t yet been able to escape this (or we probably wouldn’t be reading this). Depression and anxiety have extremely high statistics around the world, and antidepressant use is growing each year (despite them statistically only around 20% better than a placebo). About 50% of marriages end in divorce and even when marriages survive, many are filled with problems and suffering. Whilst some of us have terrible things that have happened to create our suffering, the vast majority of us have what is now termed as “first-world problems”. People who are intelligent and successful don’t tend to suffer any less than less fortunate people. Statistics show that people in successful economies have similar suicide rates than those in poorer countries. It is clear that money is not a safeguard to avoiding psychological stressors, anxiety or depression. Our internal pain is not like external events that we can change. Trying to get rid of internal pain through fighting it or struggling can often make you more entangled in your pain and transform it into something even more painful.
Every time you engage in a behaviour to avoid negative personal pain (such as avoiding a party because of social anxiety), you are likely to feel an immediate sense of relief from not having to deal with the painful thought, feeling, or bodily sensation. This sense of relief reinforces you to continue avoiding similar situations. However, each time you do this, you actually give the painful thoughts, feelings, or bodily sensations, more power to control you.
Now you need to explore what avoidance is occurring in your life, and whether this avoidance is helpful. Whilst it may be helpful to avoid some negative things in life (e.g.. an abusive partner), at times our avoidance actually makes things much worse. We need to clearly recognise the costs of avoidance and come up with more helpful solutions other than just ‘feeding the lion’.
Step 1: Make a list of what thoughts/feelings/sensations or memories you would most like to get rid of.
Step 2: Make a list of all the strategies that you have used to try and avoid these unpleasant thoughts, feelings etc. from above.
Some examples are below:
- Creating distractions
- Withdrawal from activities or people
- Ruminating mentally on the problem by: worrying about the future, obsessing about the past, imagining ways to get out of the situation (even suicide or moving), blaming yourself/others/the world, analysing yourself/the situation/others, talking negatively/positively to yourself
- Drinking alcohol, taking drugs (prescription or recreational), over-eating, smoking or even self-harm.
Now ask yourself the following questions
- Did this get rid of my painful thoughts and feelings in the long-term? Did it even get rid of these painful feelings in the short-term?
- Did this avoidance make my life more meaningful? Did it help my life move forward?
Now lets look at what this avoidance cost: Was there a loss of time, energy, money, health, relationships, vitality? Sometimes when we avoid something we move further away from our values and goals. For example, if we avoid speaking up at work or giving presentations because we don’t want to appear foolish, we may be overlooked for promotion. We may avoid talking to our partner because we are afraid will will break up, however the tension and stress results in extreme stress that results in a breakup anyway. We may avoid sitting and studying for a course because we find it so painfully boring, only to fail the course and move further away from our goals. We may avoid speaking to people at a party as we are afraid of being judged, only to be judged anyway for being standoffish or snobby.
Another way to look at this is how avoidance expands the circle of suffering. Try this exercise: In the middle of a piece of paper draw a small circle. Inside this circle write a current difficult event you avoided that you recognise was not helpful (e.g. I avoided going to a party as I couldn’t find the perfect outfit to wear). Then ask yourself what happened next? Draw another circle around the first circle and write this in the circle (e.g.. my partner yelled at me as he wanted to go to the party). Then ask what happened next and continue drawing circles (e.g.. my friend got angry and doesn’t think I care, I got left out of the next party, I damaged my other friendships, I damaged my relationship, I sat at home and just felt worse etc.). Now compare the first circle you drew to the now very large circle. Can you see how much suffering could have been avoided if you would have just stopped at the first circle.
What are the costs to you of avoiding uncomfortable feelings? Is it worth it? Are you truly living the life you desire?
Life is hard and we cannot avoid suffering completely. We need to open ourselves up to potentially negative emotions in order to gain meaning in our life. We cannot expect to have happiness and meaning fall into our laps with no work. We warned you this path wasn’t necessarily easy. However the more we open ourselves up to experiencing negative emotion, the less we suffer and the more vitality we bring into our lives. We go beyond fear and open ourselves up the achieving amazing things. To do this we need to embrace acceptance, the next stage in the path.
Benefits of acceptance
Avoiding thoughts is a common practice, but chronic avoidance of your feelings can be quite damaging as you eventually will not know what you are feeling at all. Before you can actively apply acceptance in your daily life successfully, you will need to acquire a greater understanding of the way your mind works, how your mind is affecting your behaviours, and how you can interpret that chain of events. There are two kinds of acceptance: passive and active. One is about giving up and loosing, and the other is about action and doing. Many people associate acceptance with giving up, giving in, and losing out. This type of passive acceptance or resignation is not what we want you to do because it keeps you stuck. Resignation is when you let a feeling you cannot control guide your actions (which you can control). Instead we want you to muster the courage to act and change.
Active Acceptance is compassion in action. It involves softening your mind and heart to the anger and hostility in you, and connecting with them in the present moment. You do this by letting go of the struggle with your inner experience of hurt. You let go by bringing kindness and gentle attention to unwanted anger-related thoughts and feelings, by simply allowing them to be there without suppressing, changing, or acting on them.
Acceptance makes room for choice. We focus on acceptance for practical reasons: struggling with thoughts doesn’t work, and acceptance creates space for new beginnings and new ways of responding. When you stop wasting time and energy trying to change anger-related thoughts and feelings, you’re free to take control of what you can control, in response to what you experience.
Metaphor: Chinese Finger Trap
The trap is a tube of woven straw about as big as your index finger. You push both index fingers in, one at each end, and as you pull them back out, the straw catches and tightens. The harder you pull, the smaller the tube becomes, and the stronger it holds your fingers. If the trap is built strongly enough, you’d have to pull your fingers out of their sockets to get them out of the tube by pulling, once they’ve been caught.
If you push into it, your finger will still be in the tube, but at least you’ll have enough room to move around and live your life. Now suppose that life itself is like a Chinese finger trap. So, it’s not a question of how much “wiggle room”you want to have in your life. The more you struggle, the more constricted your movements will be. If you let go of the struggle, the more freedom you have to make new choices.
When we get scared driving through a tunnel, the best option is to keep going rather than try and escape. This feeling will pass- there is an end to the tunnel.
Practicing Mindful Acceptance:
Practice expansion: Expansion means opening up and making room for difficult feelings an sensations, allowing them to flow through you without a struggle. You don’t have to want or like these feelings, just have room for them even though they are unpleasant. This is a skill that needs to be learned and practiced. Every time something unpleasant arises that it is unhelpful to avoid, we can make room for them. This way we can invest our time and energy in doing meaningful and life-enhancing activities, instead of struggling.
- Letting feelings or thoughts happen without the impulse to act on them or run away.
- Give yourself permission to not be good at everything.
- Acknowledge the difficulty in your life without escaping from it or avoiding it.
- Realise that you can be in control of how you react, think and feel. You can choose whether to cope or tell yourself you can’t.
Mindfulness acceptance is not a feeling or an attitude. Mindfulness acceptance is a skill and like anything else you get good at, it is built on practice. It starts with easy steps and develops to include the most difficult situations in your life. Mindfulness acceptance is best practices at home as you begin, in a comfortable, safe environment. You can gradually expand to include more stressful, emotion-triggering situations, including those that involve anger. Take a look at the table below, and try to apply it to a current situation in your own life.
Exposing Some Myths about Acceptance
Myth 1. Acceptance means condoning wrong doing.
Rather, you’re choosing to allow it to be there when you can’t change it in that moment. To make space for it. To give yourself permission to be as you are, feel what you feel, or have experienced what you’ve experienced without creating unproductive shame or anxiety. The pain might still be there, but some of the suffering will be alleviated
Myth 2. Acceptance is weakness.
Acceptance takes courage and strength. It is a harder path when compared with the tendency to give in or blow up. Sitting with this energy without trying to suppress it it or make it go away is the opposite of weakness. Staying with anger and pain without acting on it is one of the most difficult things you will do.
Myth 3. Acceptance means liking my experience.
Acceptance is not about liking unpleasant feelings or situations. It is a matter of no longer fighting with your experience or denying its reality. It just means seeing it for what it is rather than struggling against it. It’s like dropping the rope in a tug of war: Once you’re no longer fighting the anger team, you free up energy to create the life you want to live.
Myth 4. Acceptance is a feeling.
When you accept your experience, you respond differently to it. This is not just a feeling – it’s a stance that will completely change your point of view. It’s stepping back from your experience to develop a new way of relating with it that’s guided by the kindness you have tucked away inside of you.
Myth 5. Acceptance means diminished responsibility.
Acceptance is the highest form of response-ability you can take. By acknowledging and allowing your unwanted thoughts and emotions to be there rather than letting them dictate what you do, you actually increase your response-ability. Your ability to take charge of your life.
Myth 6. Acceptance is a clever way to manage discomfort.
Acceptance cannot prevent the pain of losing a loved one or getting hurt by another person. Feeling this type of pain is normal. No human being can escape such pain. It happens to everyone and is simply a function of living.