The trouble with avoidance is that every time we use this coping strategy, the bigger and scarier the things that we are avoiding get. By avoiding something we reinforce the story that there really is something to be afraid of. The negative chatter of the mind ends up running the show and dictating how we live our lives. As a result, our lives end up getting smaller and we get further away from what gives our life meaning and value.
Just think about something that you’ve been procrastinating on. It may be talking to your employer about a raise, speaking to your partner about a challenge in your relationship, studying for that test, or scheduling that trip to your doctor. Whatever it is, chances are that it now seems like an even bigger task than it initially was.
Now let’s try a little experiential exercise. I invite you to think about doing that very thing that you have been avoiding. Really let your imagination do its thing, and picture yourself in the situation that you have been putting off. What environment are you in? Who else is there? What are you saying or doing? As you imagine this scene, do negative thoughts come up? Does your mind tell you that things won’t go well? Do uncomfortable emotions arise? Do you notice any physical sensations like pain in your chest, a lump in your throat or churning in your stomach?
The more that we try to get rid of our unwanted thoughts, feelings and sensations, the more suffering we end up creating for ourselves.
In psychology, the act of trying to avoid, escape from or get rid of unwanted thoughts, feelings and sensations is called experiential avoidance. Dr. Steven Hayes—one of the originators of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and author of Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life—explains that when we encounter problems in life the usual response is to try to fix it or get rid of what is causing the problem. In the outside world, this is an effective strategy and from an evolutionary perspective this makes sense; our ability to solve problems in this way has allowed the human race to survive and flourish.
Unfortunately, a fix it or get rid of it strategy, when applied to our inner experience, is not helpful. In fact, the opposite seems to happen: the more that we try to get rid of our unwanted thoughts, feelings and sensations, the more suffering we end up creating for ourselves. Dr. Hayes, uses the analogy of the Chinese finger trap to further explain this paradox. The more we pull (try to avoid our feelings, thoughts and sensations), the tighter the trap becomes (the more restricted life gets).
In his book The Happiness Trap, author Dr. Russ Harris points out that experiential avoidance is the major cause of anxiety, depression, eating disorders, addiction and numerous other psychological challenges. Harris explains that, in a nutshell, the happiness trap is this: “to find happiness we try to avoid or get rid of bad feelings, but the harder we try, the more bad feelings we create.”
Imagine, for example, someone who is feeling down in the dumps after losing his job. We’ll call him Jim. Jim hasn’t been getting out much lately—his energy level is low and he finds it easier to just stay home. Jim’s harsh internal dialogue is relentless. He tells himself that he’s a failure, and that his friends wouldn’t want to be around someone who is a downer. His buddies call him and ask if he wants to hang out with them, but the very thought of socializing brings up feelings of anxiety and embarrassment. He comes up with every excuse in the book not to go. Jim’s avoidance strategy works somewhat in the short-term—when Jim turns down the social invitation he feels a sense of relief. If we look at the long-term consequences however, this coping strategy will probably make things worse for Jim. The more he avoids his friends, the more isolated, unworthy and ashamed he is likely to feel.
So if trying to escape from our painful inner experience doesn’t work, what is the alternative? Through mindfulness we can learn to let go of the struggle with our inner experience; we can learn to accept our thoughts, feelings and sensations as they are. Instead of struggling to get out of the finger trap we can push into it. We may still have our fingers in the trap but we will have given ourselves more wiggle room and created the space to live our lives more fully.
Books on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT):
Harris, Russ. The Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living, 2007.
Hayes, Steven and Spencer Smith. Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life: The New Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, 2005.