Avoidance happens. Avoidance creates every type of suffering. You suffer. Suffering is pain plus resistance. Resistance and avoidance are functionally synonymous.
Sometimes acting in accordance with your values and experiential avoidance will be the same behaviors. The difference between your values-driven action and avoidance is your attitude. Workable behavior is a dynamic adaptation based on your context, rather than rigid, rule-based behavior.
Anxious sufferers want to know what they need to do in order to cure or overcome their anxiety. The reason that a manual, self-help book, and app can’t offer you a comprehensive plan is not because there isn’t an effective strategy. A one-size-fits-all strategy doesn’t work because your anxiety uniquely shifts based on the function of your behavior in a dynamic way. The meaning your mind gives to your behavior and its consequences is more predictive of an increase or decrease in anxiety over time than the behavior itself.
As an example, acting polite, bubbly, grateful, and thoughtful can be values-driven. It can be a challenging exposure and a confidence boost to act in these ways with friends or family no matter how anxious or depressed you feel. And, if you act this way frequently, rigidly, across many areas of your life and in all of your relationships, this value-driven behavior will become an avoidance behavior. What started as a behavioral activation technique (“act as though you aren’t anxious or depressed and do the activity anyway”) becomes avoidance if it is your only strategy. If it’s your only strategy, your lack of authenticity and vulnerability about what you’re thinking and feeling will make you feel distant from yourself and others.
To continue to the example, sometimes it will be workable to act as though you feel anxious or depressed and engage in your life anyway. Sometimes it will be workable to change your plan and do less than you were planning in order to accommodate your symptoms of anxiety, OCD, and depression. Sometimes it will be workable to confide in a person who has earned the right for your vulnerability about your anxiety and depressive symptoms. Sometimes it is more workable to keep your private experience to yourself. We’re striving for adaptive, workable behavior that is responsive to dynamic environmental cues, rather than systems and rules.
Rigid behaviors are often the result of rigid environments. Don’t beat yourself up if you often use the same strategies, whether it’s always seeking reassurance or always keeping it to yourself.
Try to use your observations of rigid strategies as data and find the opportunity for variability in your environment. Here are some ideas:
- If you frequently keep your suffering to yourself, is there a friend or family member who seems to be a better listener than others?
- If you frequently seek reassurance from others, can you turn your reassurance seeking into a game you are trying to win? Try setting a reasonable number for how many times you will seek reassurance this week and then beat it!
- What types of rigid behaviors do you engage in? Is there a behavior you are willing to shift?
Avoidance behaviors vs. preferences
Some anxiety sufferers definitely know that they avoid. Situational avoidance (that is, not going somewhere because you feel anxious) is usually obvious. Sometimes people think, “I just don’t like ____ (crowds, parties, driving, flying) ____ and that’s why I don’t do it.” Sometimes that is true and refraining from such activities is not an avoidance behavior.
Now we’re talking preferences vs. avoidance behaviors.
Having a preference for something typically doesn’t cause impairment. If I don’t eat chocolate because I don’t like it, that’s a preference. There are lots of other options for what I can eat and I’m not impaired if I don’t eat it. A key distinction for a preference is that you could do it if you needed to do it to achieve some other value.
Comparatively, anxious avoidance doesn’t feel like a choice. If you anxiously avoid, it probably feels like a no-win situation. You want to engage in the activity, but you don’t want to feel anxious. If you engage, you will feel anxious. You can’t do the activity without feeling anxious. You avoid the activity.
People in this position typically hate it. You hate that you’re missing what you want to do. You hate your anxiety for getting in the way. It’s very demoralizing.
Depending on how long you’ve experienced this demoralization and whether or not it happened developmentally across your childhood, you may start to think that your avoidance is your preference. For instance, if you’ve experienced chronic social anxiety, you may start to think that you actually don’t like people. If you’ve experienced chronic fear of driving you may start to think that staying close to home works fine for you. If it’s actually your preference and not avoidance, you should be able to do it as necessary. If you can get to another neighborhood or country, but you don’t prefer it, then great, you don’t need exposure.
This concept speaks to why its helpful to go beyond your realistic preference during exposure work. You might never need to sit on floor in a bathroom in real life, but if you have contamination fears, you’d do this type of exposure to teach yourself that you can. Once you are confident that you are willing to engage in your values-driven behavior regardless of how you feel, you will have better clarity about your actual preferences.