AVOIDANCE. We all know this word well. We may avoid doing our homework, addressing a challenge at work, or asserting our needs to others. When meeting with a client seeking treatment, one of the first questions that comes to my mind is “What might this person be avoiding”? Many mental health disorders are the result of repeated avoidance of short-term suffering, which ultimately maintains and escalates pain. This may include avoidance of painful emotion, situations, people, or feelings of failure. In many ways, this avoidance makes perfect sense! Who wants to voluntarily experience suffering or fear? However, avoidance only works in the short-term.
For example, a client with social anxiety avoids social situations/relationships due to fear of judgment or fear of other’s perceptions of them. In the short term, this avoidance of social situations is quite effective at reducing their discomfort. However, this avoidant behavior leads to a socially isolated life in which the patient does not enjoy social connection with others, engage in valued activities that involve others, or enjoy a rich amount of social support.
Far too often we are caught in what works for us in the short, and don’t realize how this hurts us in the long. Therefore, a phrase I often say to my clients is “let’s get out of the short!” Focusing on what will be effective in one’s life in the long term is often challenging, as it often goes against our natural instinct to avoid pain in the present moment. However, pain is part of our human existence so once we accept that we can start moving toward long-term effective behavioral and cognitive changes. Next time you observe an avoidant behavior, problem solve how to get out of the “short”!