“We define the entire outer scope of our outer experiences based on our inner problems. If you want to grow…you have to change that.”
—Michael A. Singer
Every day, you face a choice: either you do what you did before or you do something differently. That works fine when faced with a simple matter like: “what shall I make for dinner tonight?” But it can be debilitating if you’re engaged in avoidance behaviour, either in your personal life or your work as a creative pro.
For some, that comes in a low-grade form of procrastination. For others, it’s something more elevated where the behaviour is repeated, chronic and anxiety based.
The effect is the same: the thing that you avoid doing aggravates the pain you’re seeking to avoid. That is unsustainable. Eventually you have to confront what you’re running away from and slay your dragons. To do that, here’s what’s worked for me and maybe it can do the same for you.
Put a name on it
We only understand things we can name, and we only name things that are familiar. Thus, behaviours and thoughts only begin to have a shape once you assign labels to them. Otherwise they are limited to how they make you or others feel. If you consistently avoid taking a call from someone because you’re dreading having a difficult but necessary conversation, you’d likely be feeling a little guilty and the other party will probably be growing increasingly annoyed. Once you name it—“This is avoidance behaviour”—you take ownership of it and stop projecting it onto others as excuses.
Build a better model
If your choices are framed around either I do something or I don’t, you’ll forever be susceptible to the pull of choosing to not do something. Don’t make that an option in your decision-making system. Instead, build a model of thinking that’s built on the premise of having done something. For example: “Once (not if) I get my boring accounting work done, I can reward myself with something nice.” The quality of our assumptions determine the quality of our outcomes.
Schedule tasks and hold yourself accountable
Anxiety is sometimes described as a fear of the future. Avoidance is the manifestation of anxiety but all it can do is offer you delayed suffering. Instead, name the task that needs to get done and put it in your calendar. Next, find a trusted accountability partner who will hold you to your promise of doing what you said you would do. If you’re in a creative line of work, making a pledge and delivering on deadline is very familiar to you. Leverage that skill.
Know the cost
Numbers don’t lie. Create a ledger that keeps track of your most difficult tasks. This will hold yourself to account for each time you engage in avoidance behaviour. Put a sum on the cost of your avoidance behaviour. Measure it in units of time or energy spent or spirit wasted on not doing a job that needs to be done. How has it affected your wellness? How has it affected your relationships? You’ll be shocked by how much gets wasted on avoidance and on the ensuing guilt of not getting things done.
Know what home is to you
We are hardwired to repeat patterns because they are familiar. For many, familiar is safe. Familiar is like home. Even the root of the word “familiar” has its origins in the notion of that which pertains to one’s family. But for some, the figurative act of going home to what is familiar involves feelings that are unpleasant or facts that are painful. In that sense, home isn’t always what and where you think it is. This is why avoidance behaviour is so enticing. It gives the illusion of that painful feelings can be eliminated. In truth: we all go home.
“If you really want to see why you do things,” writes Michael A. Singer in his book The Untethered Soul, “then don’t do them and see what happens.” His point works just as well the other way around. If you want to see why you avoid things, do them instead and watch what happens next. Having named your avoidance behaviour and having installed an accountability system, treat what happens next not as a consequence but as an experiment. This is where understanding happens. The pain you’re seeking to avoid with avoidance behaviour isn’t a root cause: it’s a symptom of a deeper unmet need. Your experiment will show you what yours is.
Avoidance behaviour is a tendency to remain stuck in a way of thinking that’s rooted in judgement and consequences. Focus instead on choices that are consistent with what you value. As I’ve talked about before, it’s important to keep seeking that sense of agency we each have within ourselves to build deliberately the life of our own choosing. Do that now.