The way we avoid can take many shapes or forms and can be very personal to the individual.
Despite the process of avoidance feeling like a passive process it can take up a lot of energy and sometimes causes or is linked to depression, anxiety, tiredness, tension, stress, low self esteem, addictions, OCD, eating disorders and so on.
Lets look at some of the down sides of avoidance, which is best done by looking at some specific examples.
Lets say that someone does not feel comfortable expressing anger. It may be that growing up it was not permissible to show anger or that expressing it led to conflict. Now, anger is a natural emotion (as are all emotions!) and to feel anger is also a natural part of being human. However if someone has an internal message that showing anger is not ok then they may suppress it - which can lead to feelings of stress, powerlessness or incapacitation - and eventually the anger may burst out inappropriately anyway. (NB this is not to say that people should go around expressing anger inappropriately, but anger expressed appropriately and from the Adult ego state can be a force for change leading to assertiveness and preventing people walking over you).
Another example of avoidance can be seen with anger that is repressed - i.e. pushed down unconsciously - so much so that it is not even felt by the person. This can lead to feelings of tiredness, lethargy, depression, anxiety. (By the way, this does not mean that repressed anger is aways the cause of depression but certainly depression can be a result of such a repressed emotion).
Another common result of avoidance is anxiety - anxiety can be caused by the tension created by avoiding an aspect of ourselves.
A key way of tackling some of the problems associated with avoidance is acceptance. Acceptance can be as simple as turning your minds eye to the aspect of yourself that you are avoiding. And if you’re not sure what it is you are avoiding but are aware of the discomfort (eg the anxiety) - then facing the discomfort can be a great place to start. Other techniques can involve exploring yourself through techniques such as free association, dream analysis, body language, and mindfulness.
Mindfulness is a key route to acceptance and is a simple powerful tool that can allow us to be with ourselves in the here and now - to be aware of and accepting of what is going on within us.
Very often when we confront such aspects of ourselves we can be surprised at how actually OK they are. When we turn away from something it can hold power over us - children are sometimes afraid of the dark in it concealing unknown quantities (when actually there is nothing there) - when we are avoiding then the avoided aspect is unknown and can be scary. To face it means it can lose its power over you. And very often in being aware of and accepting our feelings, they can be expressed freely leading to relief and resolution.
It is important to note that if someone is avoiding something traumatic from their past, this does not necessarily mean that you have to revisit an original trauma to get relief from. Rothschild (2010) discusses this in working with clients with PTSD and discusses how people can be helped without revisiting the original trauma.
The best person to judge whether or not to confront something in yourself IS yourself - trust your instinct. And if you are not sure what your instinct is telling you then becoming mindful of yourself - this can be a great way to access your instinct.
Before I finish this post I’d like to share a couple of minor examples of avoidance to illustrate how common it is in human nature and the tension it can create. When I was writing this blog last week I became aware of a dustbin lorry outside banging and crashing as loads of bottles were being thrown into it. I was trying to write but becoming more and more irritated with the noise intrusion and noticed a feeling of stress. So instead of continuing to fight with the noise, I leaned back and just listened to it, I listened to the loud crashes and chinks of the bottles being crunched up inside the lorry. I also noted that it was quite an interesting and textured sound and I actually quite liked it in that moment. And as a result I relaxed. OK so I wasn't getting my work done momentarily but I felt better.
Another example I note is that when I shut my laptop, I immediately feel more relaxed. What has this to do with avoidance? Well I believe that in being online or staring at a screen as so many of us do daily, then we are avoiding ourselves in the very ‘being’ sense. When I shut my laptop lid I immediately become aware of a release of the tension that was there before.
(I think this is a phenomenon that it pertinent to the whole human race at the moment but that’s another post!)