We humans have an innate desire to avoid emotional pain. After all, who wants to feel pain? Ironically, however, the more we try to avoid emotional pain, the more painful the situation becomes. Stated more simply, avoiding pain leads to increased pain. Facing our fears diminishes pain.
You’re a student with a final exam approaching. You are anxious about the exam, afraid you might not pass. To avoid the fear, you spend the week before the final doing everything but studying, telling yourself “I won’t see my friends until the fall.” The night before the exam you start studying at 10 pm after a quick beer with friends. You are overwhelmed with fear when you start reviewing your notes. How will you learn all this material before the exam at 9 am? You stay up all night studying but get a D on the exam. You’re angry at yourself for not studying earlier in the week. You feel guilty and ashamed because you promised your parents you’d bring your grades up. You wonder if you might have gotten a D even if you had studied early. You vow that you will study early for the next final but you are so obsessed with fear of failure, you make other commitments to distract yourself from the fear. The same thing happens with the same result. This pattern will occur over and over until you face your fear of failure.
Cycle of Avoidance
As the diagram below illustrates, the final exam triggered negative emotions (fear), which leads to finding things to do to avoid the fear (avoidance). Spending time with friends (problem behavior) brings temporary relief. But investing all of your time in social activities leaves no opportunity to develop good study habits. Not knowing how to study efficiently or effectively makes you even more vulnerable when the next exam comes up. Your negative emotions expand and escalate from fear to guilt and self-judgment to shame. Now you fear that even if you study you might not be able to pass. And the cycle begins again, escalating each time you avoid studying. Bottom line is avoiding pain leads to more pain.
Think of other situations that may trigger this cycle of escalating avoidance —fear of flying or driving a car or learning a new skill, fear of failure (or even success), fear you’re not good enough or worth the effort – to name a few.
Start with Beginner’s Mind
If you decide to face your fears, you will need to tolerate the distress. The longer you have avoided the situation, the harder it will be. It helps to let go of your expectations. If you have unrealistic expectations, you may reinforce the very habitual cycle you are trying to break. Adopt a beginner’s mind – no expectations. Whatever the result, it’s okay. Figure out what skills you lack, learn from the experience and move on. The next time you face the situation, adopt beginner’s mind again. Sometimes the outcomes may improve; other times they may not. The only “mistake” is not learning from the experience.
As you become more skillful, your fear and vulnerability will diminish. Your urge to engage in the problem behavior will become easier to overcome. There may even come a time when you forget you ever avoided the situation (or not).
So next time you have the urge to avoid a feared task face your fear, master new skills and feel better about yourself for not avoiding.
Sandra Miller, MSW, LCSW and sometimes blogger, sees clients at St. Louis DBT, LLC.