Why Avoidance Hurts Us

Why Avoidance Hurts Us

Last update: 11 October, 2017

We’ve all found ourselves in a situation where we are plagued with so much discomfort that the only thing we want to do is escape. We’re going to explain why avoidance hurts us, even though it can initially seem like the best defense mechanism. 

Besides, we’re not only going to discuss the harm caused by this type of confrontation, but we will also identify which behaviors we recommend instead of avoidance. Avoidance behavior only succeeds in distancing ourselves from the possibility of being exposed to a situation that we perceive as uncomfortable or maybe even painful.

“I learned that one can never go back, that one should not ever try to go back – that the essence of life is going forward. Life is really a one way street”.

What is avoidance?

When we find ourselves in a situation that we consider threatening, we all have a number confrontation strategies to address the situation with. We mould and adjust these strategies throughout our lives. If they seem to work well in certain situations, we tend to use them more and more often. We may even end up using them to solve problems where that type of strategy doesn’t initially seem the most suitable. And, reversibly, we tend to write them off if they aren’t efficient.

Avoidance doesn't work

Based on this, there are two types of strategies which can be put into effect. The first is avoidance, within which we can distinguish planned avoidance and escape. First case scenario, we anticipate an unpleasant situation and do everything in our power to distance ourselves from it. Second case scenario, we are already absorbed into an unpleasant situation and concentrate all our energy towards getting out of it.

When possible, one advantage of avoidance behavior is that it does restore the calm. We rely on this boost in the short term. The immediate relief of those unpleasant feelings is often very powerful. And so, people will carry on using this strategy each time something happens that makes them feel uncomfortable. Like this, they will avoid more and more situations in different areas in which they find themselves, their lives being increasingly conditioned by fear.

So much so, that this confrontation strategy is important to take into account when treating emotional disorders. If this behavior changes, it will greatly improve their mental well-being.

How do I face situations that make me feel uncomfortable?

So, if avoiding situations that make us feel uncomfortable is harming us in the long run, what should we do? Should we give in to the suffering? Since there are other ways of facing the situation that don’t impose limits on us, the answer is no.


Avoidance behavior is harmful

Folkman and his collaborators (1986) established different categories for the various types of confrontation:

  • Confrontation: use direct, even aggressive actions, a hostile and risky attitude to change a situation which is generating discomfort.
  • Distancing: distance ourselves from the situation without removing ourselves from it completely so as to be able to develop a perspective on it.
  • Self-control: the ability to engage the emotional regulation strategies that we know.
  • Search for social support: attempt to gain information, advice and understanding from those around us.
  • Avoidance: as we have already seen, this implies actually fleeing the situation.
  • Planning: analise the situation and search for alternative options that could be carried out.
  • Positive reevaluation: see the situation as a challenge that will help personal development, instead of a threat to our emotional stability.
“The vexations that might befall one is a standard exercise”

However, what would be beneficial would be to distance ourselves, thus enabling self-control and in turn positive reevaluation of the situation. This would help us work out which actions to carry out and eventually encourage us to seek social support (without building a dependance on others for everything). Of course, as long as we don’t have to act quickly.

As we have seen, it’s all about wisely employing the different strategies that are in our reach. Avoiding specific situations may be a cautious strategy, but we can’t spend our lives jumping over puddles with the slightest rainfall. In fact, if we insist on this leapfrog strategy, we will end up immobilised in one place, hoping and praying that the water won’t seep into our small space, and without having learnt anything along the way.

On the other hand, if we employ types of confrontation where we undertake a challenge, we develop a sense of self-competence which appears when we have done something successfully. Thus, this also boosts our self esteem.

Images courtesy of Ryan McGuire.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.