What Is Avoidance?
It is understandably common for people to seek to avoid at least some anxiety-provoking situations. However, tendencies to avoidance can become entrenched over a period of time to become quite self-defeating. This is because the urge to avoid situations can be strengthened by the short-term relief that escape from such situations may bring. As a consequence, avoided situations can become even more anxiety-provoking. Avoidant patterns of behaviour can lead to greater imbalance and dissatisfaction in people’s lives if such patterns or habits become entrenched as avoidant personality characteristics. Such avoidant characteristics include: avoiding work activities which have significant interpersonal contact, being unwilling to become involved with others unless certain of being liked, being restrained in intimate relationships, being preoccupied with being criticized or rejected in social situations, being inhibited in new social situations because of feelings of inadequacy, viewing oneself as personally unappealing or inferior, and being unusually reluctant to take personal risks or engage in new activities which may prove embarrassing. Those with strong avoidant personality tendencies experience at least four of these characteristics.
Those who develop avoidant personality characteristics in adult life have commonly been shy in their childhood and teenage years. Their shyness generally continues into adult life. Such individuals commonly wish for close and intimate relationships with others and may have a somewhat painful sense of loneliness. However, they may feel unconfident or be somewhat reluctant to seek closer relationships owing to a fear of being embarrassed or of being found to be inadequate. People with avoidant personality characteristics are commonly not confident about their social skills. Those with avoidant tendencies may also experience significant levels of anxiety and or depression. Individuals may attempt to avoid, repress, or distract away from thoughts or feelings associated with such painful emotions. However, avoiding emotionally uncomfortable reactions can interfere with the more consistent development of reliable coping strategies for managing with painful emotions.
How to Counter Avoidant Tendencies
Fortunately, there are ways of helping to counter avoidant personality tendencies which can significantly improve a person’s emotional and interpersonal wellbeing. However, any changes in personality patterns require active effort over a long period of time. If a person alters their behaviour in any area for a few weeks they will have merely demonstrated a capacity to change a specific behaviour. If an individual persists to alter a pattern of behaviour for four months, it could be said that they have changed a habit: most relapses to former harmful patterns of behaviour happen within that time frame. If a person has been able to sustain change in a general pattern of behaviour for a period of two years they might be said to have changed their personality functioning. Those with avoidant personality characteristics will need to persist in their efforts for a period of two years or more to be confident of effecting lasting change. This requires a considerable degree of motivation. Seeking to counter avoidance and to face anxiety-provoking and other uncomfortable situations is difficult for anybody, let alone for those who have a particular difficulty with dealing with emotional discomfort. Therefore it is important that people pursuing such changes adopt reasonable expectations, seek to be both fair and supportive to themselves, and give themselves good encouragement for their efforts to face uncomfortable situations and to act and think in a different manner. Acknowledging and gaining satisfaction from any forward steps will help speed up and consolidate the process of change.
Therapeutic Steps to Countering Patterns of Avoidance
It initially helps for individuals to have some understanding as to how they might have developed avoidant patterns in the first place. Sometimes people will have encountered extremely difficult or traumatic experiences in their childhood which have influenced their motivation to avoid emotional distress. Those with avoidant tendencies commonly have difficulty in directly and effectively dealing with interpersonal conflict. It is more difficult for individuals to learn to act assertively (which means being able to identify and stand up for one’s own rights whilst respecting the rights of others) unless at least one of their parents has modelled an assertive style of dealing with conflict. Those with avoidant tendencies have commonly been raised in a family environment where conflict was avoided by both parents, or was managed in a less effective manner. Those with avoidant tendencies are commonly very self-critical and may expect to be rejected by others: this will occur more often where an individual has experienced a parent to be critical and or rejecting.
Gaining an understanding of factors which may have contributed to the development of avoidant tendencies can be assisted by at least two sessions of assessment with a clinical psychologist experienced in assisting those with such personality difficulties. Individuals often experience some degree of relief (along with their discomfort!) from the opportunity to discuss avoidant aspects of their reactions in a matter-of-fact way and in a non-judgemental setting. It is clear that those who engage in such frank discussions have already taken some very constructive steps to face at least some uncomfortable situations and are genuinely seeking to counter their self-defeating avoidance. There may also be a particular advantage in individuals with avoidant tendencies joining a group therapy setting: this involves an even greater degree of exposure to the uncomfortable situation of meeting with others and leaving oneself open to others scrutiny and the potential judgements that others might make. However, such therapy settings are commonly very supportive given that other individuals have similarly declared themselves to be interested in challenging such patterns of behaviour within themselves. Attending a therapy group may represent a constructive step in learning to directly tackle fears of disapproval, for example, by acknowledging one’s difficulties in front of others. It is important that group settings provide a safe, constructive, and confidential space to make this easier, especially knowing that other participants have shared similar experiences.
Specific Therapy Techniques
It is important to learn about the potential role of particular attitudes, thought patterns and habits which perpetuate avoidant behaviour and contribute to psychological difficulties. A cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) approach aims to help individuals improve their emotional, interpersonal, and other aspects of their psychological functioning by helping them change their patterns of thinking or behaviour. Cognitive-behavioural therapy has a strong initial focus on education about the potential influences and consequences of avoidant patterns of thinking and behaviour on their overall functioning and wellbeing. The educational focus also aims to promote a systematic and effective approach in altering such avoidant patterns.
It is most important that individuals with avoidant patterns adopt a persistent and long-term perspective on achieving change. To do this, people need to be forgiving toward themselves if and when they are disappointed by lapses to old habits along the way. It helps to have a more intensive period of therapy support for 2-3 months to assist individuals to make a constructive start in challenging avoidant tendencies. After this, individuals can benefit from follow-up support.
Facing Feared Situations
There are two main areas for individuals to address to change avoidant patterns. In the first instance, it is important for people to develop a strong interest in facing situations or exposing themselves to situations which might be uncomfortable and provoke anxiety, but which nonetheless might be worthwhile for them. Such situations might involve expressing opinions to others more frequently, accepting work tasks or roles which involve a greater degree of challenging interpersonal contact, or situations which involve addressing a conflict a little more directly. As with facing any previously avoided or feared situations, it can be important to set realistic goals in a step-by-step fashion: in other words, it may help to aim to make more modest gains initially by tackling less threatening situations before choosing to tackle situations which are much more daunting or anxiety-provoking. It is important to adopt a coping as opposed to a mastery approach: a coping approach involves acknowledging that one feels uncomfortable whilst still making active efforts to deal with any ensuing discomfort and having some confidence that one will manage. A mastery approach involves the unfair expectation that one should be very confident to tackle any difficult situation and to manage it easily. This is not realistic when facing longstanding emotionally-challenging situations.
Developing Relevant Skills
Another area to address in therapy is the development of particular everyday living skills to manage uncomfortable situations. In the first instance, this involves developing coping skills including anxiety management techniques. Techniques for dealing with anxiety include breathing techniques and relaxation techniques as well as encouraging oneself with coping self-talk. Coping skills also involve developing realistic goals and using problem-solving strategies when dealing with challenging situations. Another key area of skill-development focuses on social skills. It is generally easier to engage in social and other interpersonal situations when one is more confident about being able to converse with others and is more confident about their non-verbal presentation and demeanour. It also helps to learn to deal with patterns of worry more generally (Also see our handout on dealing with worry).
Photograph: Mark Asthoff
Countering Negative Thoughts
In order to counter avoidant personality patterns, it is particularly important to recognise and to counter negative attitudes which contribute to avoidance. Individuals with avoidant tendencies often have very negative attitudes or reactions to uncomfortable or painful feelings, even though such feelings are a part of regular human experience and everyday life. For example, avoidant thoughts include believing, I shouldn’t have to feel anxious, or, I should always feel good. People can fear that if they start feeling anxious or sad that their emotional reactions will get out of control and they won’t be able to function. This only adds to one’s sense of anxiety and unease in dealing with painful feelings. Anxious feelings may be uncomfortable, but they are not dangerous.
Avoidant thinking includes making excuses or rationalising about one’s avoidance of situations, for example by thinking, “I won’t enjoy doing that activity”, or, “I’ll be too tired”, or, “I don’t feel like doing it now I’ll do it later”. Such thinking only perpetuates and strengthens the avoidance. It helps to develop a few simple phrases (e.g. It’s worth making an effort, I might enjoy it, I’ll feel stuck if I don’t take risks, Procrastinating doesn’t help, etc.) to counter such thoughts.
Other examples of avoidant thinking are tending to engage in wishful thinking and choosing to believe that one’s interpersonal difficulties will one day be eased without recognising the extensive effort which might be needed to learn to manage more easily with one’s emotions.
Even though they wish to be closer with others, avoidant individuals may believe it is very likely that they would be rejected by others and might view such potential rejection as unbearable. Avoidant thinking includes self-deprecating thoughts such as, “I’m not good enough”, “I’m unlikeable”, or, “I don’t belong here.” Avoidant individuals often overestimate other people’s tendencies to be critical and may believe such thoughts as “other people would reject me if they knew me better”. Fears of rejection may also come across in such thoughts as, “If they think I’m unintelligent or unattractive then that must be true”, or, “that person rejected me because I’m inadequate.” Other self-critical thoughts commonly include, I’m unattractive, I’m boring, or, I’m not clever.
Avoidant individuals often make assumptions about relationships such as that one must please others all the time in order to be liked, that someone might only like you if you do whatever they want and that others would view them negatively and end their friendship if they made a single mistake. Such assumptions intensify anxious feelings related to the threat of rejection.
Avoidant individuals also commonly have difficulty gauging others’ reactions to them and may adopt an overly negative perception of others’ opinions of them. They might interpret reactions as being negative or anticipate criticism about their competence or qualities. They might attribute compliments they receive to the other person not knowing them well or being somehow fooled by them. Needless to say such patterns of thinking would only reduce an individual’s self-esteem and confidence to manage with a range of interpersonal situations. This may lead individuals to avoid challenging situations even more: this further interferes with their development of friendships and confidence in their social skills.
Practical exercises for dealing with avoidant patterns include developing and recording an exposure hierarchy which lists situations one might wish to face which have been graded from less threatening to more threatening situations. The person might then seek to face these situations in incremental steps. It may be important for individuals to develop breathing and relaxation techniques to help manage physical aspects of anxiety, to develop one’s own coping self-statements, to give oneself encouragement, and to learn to directly counter negative thoughts. It may be useful for individuals to keep a diary to help identify negative thoughts which contribute to avoidance: monitoring such thoughts promotes awareness of them and helps to counter them.
In summary, the key issue for countering avoidant patterns is to act and to keep taking action in the direction of facing challenging situations. Many such situations might nonetheless be enhancing to one’s social life, family life, work roles, or recreation. Any changes of behaviour toward facing such situations provide clear evidence of countering avoidant tendencies. Taking practical steps toward specific behavioural goals is key. A coping approach will facilitate this. It is important for individuals to recognise and build on successes. Countering avoidance is a long-term quest. It is important to support one’s persistence in pursuing such a goal. Finally, it is very important for individuals to allow for lapses because lapses will certainly occur along the way. Recovering from lapses and making renewed efforts to face challenging situations is a very clear way for a person to demonstrate that they are strongly countering their past habit of avoidance.
Those who have engaged in therapy to specifically address avoidant patterns of behaviour have already taken a major step forward in pursuing significant and hopefully lasting changes which are likely to enhance one’s general wellbeing and appreciation of life in a range of areas.
At Chris Mackey and Associates we offer a ten-session therapy group on an annual basis, the “Taking A Step Forward Group,” which is specifically designed to help people tackle avoidant tendencies. Many of those who complete such groups describe striking life changes down the track such as gaining job promotions, starting new positive relationships, improving family relationships whilst asserting themselves, and generally no longer feeling ruled by avoidant tendencies. Those wishing to enquire about the group can contact us on our email address.
Chris Mackey is a clinical psychologist and Fellow of The Australian Psychological Society with 40 years’ psychotherapy experience, including 30 years specialising in psychological trauma. He is the author of The Positive Psychology of Synchronicity: Enhance Your Mental Health with the Power of Coincidence, released internationally on August 13th, 2019 by Watkins Publishing (See book website).