The Human Problem of Avoiding

– by Lee Smith, Ph.D.

We shouldn’t avoid this question any longer: What do you do when you feel troubled? Owning negative emotion and briskly bouncing back from problems are the oh-so-desirables. But most of us just automatically put the troubles out of our mind, using abilities such as distraction, thought stopping, denial or numbing. Or we “think”. All of these abilities can be exercised in the service of avoidance.

Hey, look over there!! Shifting our attention away from our problems brings temporary relief. Something must be looked up on the internet, or the kitchen calls, or work beckons. Something just has to get done and there’s a single-mindedness of purpose. Or maybe it’s just getting absorbed by the lives of celebrities. Hey! I recognize that I’m writing this, right now, to avoid painting! Some people are driven to stay busy through much of their life, so as to avoid. But our mind-brain holds critical life experiences forever, patiently insisting, “You have to deal with this”.

Thought-stopping is like our mind covering its ears and going “la-la-la-la”, or pushing the stop button on the DVD player.

Denial, that river in Egypt, is a fluid lie we tell ourselves, quite convincingly. After all, denial only works if we, the liar, swallow the lie. The only problem is that the lie isn’t true. And if it isn’t true then it can never be digested, broken down into the constituent parts of true experience, leaving us the wiser.

And lastly, our troubled mind may instead use a practiced ability to go numb, feel nothing, day dream and lose time.

Our confrontation of the subject of avoidance wouldn’t be complete without also mentioning addictions. This is a huge area, deserving of many columns. Our neurobiological abilities to feel pleasure are a picnic for avoiding. Substances (yes, beer is a substance), gambling, sex/porn, food, work – all can bring about a quick change in our state of mind, getting us away from ourselves, from our lives. Our brains easily develop a deep compulsive taste for temporary relief.

All the flavours of avoidance can be very agreeable. But it can be like using your charge card when you don’t have the money – quick and painless. The problem is that the balance remains due and with a super-hefty interest rate to boot!

The yin and yang of why we get into trouble with avoidance in the first place is a brain thing. On the evolutionary road, the chances of survival increased if our attention was locked on to the creatures that might eat us. Our successful ancestors didn’t forget about the lions and tigers and bears.

And so our mind-brain rivets attention to what’s threatening. The interview tomorrow, the exam, the past trauma, money issues, you name it, stick like Velcro. We tend to automatically zero-in on the scary and threatening, real or imagined, and have a much more difficult time tearing our attention away. We easily get stuck, caught up and preoccupied. It’s no wonder that we scramble for “Serenity Now”.

And so we might see-saw between these two automatic systems, fear and avoidance. Or some people practice worry (fear, anxiety) like Olympic contenders while others make avoidance a lifestyle. We can get so stuck it can feel like there’s no other option. Yuck!

Peace of mind requires a sort of internal referee, some strengthened ability that is independent of the rivalry between these mental siblings, avoidance and anxiety. That’s where paying attention – mindfulness – can play its most beneficial role. Honestly facing and intimately knowing our reactions and problems is a natural third option, healthier and perhaps quite radical in an inside-the-skull kind of way.