Wise Body

The Emotional Avoidance Roundabout

March 9, 2021

There’s a folder on my desktop called “stuff to file someday.” I created it when I was overwhelmed with the number of unfiled documents on my screen. I thought if I put them in a folder, I won’t have to look at them and feel stressed every time I open my computer. There’s only one […]

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Diana Hill, PhD, is a clinical psychologist, international trainer, and sought-out speaker on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and compassion

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There’s a folder on my desktop called “stuff to file someday.” I created it when I was overwhelmed with the number of unfiled documents on my screen. I thought if I put them in a folder, I won’t have to look at them and feel stressed every time I open my computer. There’s only one problem. I keep adding to it. And the more I add to it, instead of feeling relief that I now have a clean desktop, I feel dread that I have a folder with “stuff to file someday” that I will need to open someday (but not today!).

I imagine that you can relate because you likely have your own emotional avoidance strategies. Emotional avoidance is when we try and control difficult thoughts, feelings and sensations, and in doing so we make things worse.

Here are some common ways we emotionally avoid. Which ones are your favorite? I “starred” mine.

*Numbing: Using substances, eating, restricting food, drinking, over exercising

*Bracing: Tensing your body, holding your breath, tightening your belly, clenching your teeth

*Distracting: Fantasizing, trying not to think, overusing technology, multitasking

*Giving-up: opting out, leaving early, not signing up, isolating, sleeping too much

*Rushing Through: speeding-up, overdoing, talking fast, striving

*Overthinking: over-analyzing, problem solving, intellectualizing

*Procrastinating: Making folders within folders on your desktop

Emotional avoidance is a frustrating roundabout. Just like Chevy Chase in the movie European Vacation, you go around and around in a circle to nowhere. Because:

  1. Emotional avoidance is short-term and whatever you’re avoiding tends to come back
  2. Turning away from discomfort can also involve turning away from important aspects of your life

Avoiding a file on my desktop is just a minor example. Some of the following examples of emotional avoidance highlight its potential for creating negative consequences:

  • Not engaging in meaningful conversations to avoid feelings of intimacy
  • Procrastinating an important life goal to avoid feelings of inadequacy
  • Overusing substances to avoid feelings of loss or grief
  • Not setting boundaries with a family member to avoid feelings of guilt

So what can we do when we notice we are caught in an emotional avoidance roundabout?

  • Name it: “I am caught in an emotional avoidance roundabout.”
  • Practice Acceptance: Allow and welcome your full experience.
  • Turn toward values: Make a small move that’s consistent with the person you want to be.

To learn more about unhooking from emotional avoidance check out these interviews I did on Psychologists Off the Clock podcast:

To learn how striving can turn into an emotional avoidance roundabout check out my Tuesday Teaching: From Striving to Letting Go.

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