What is Avoidance Behavior? An Explainer

Our experiences are complex, but for the sake of simplicity, let’s break them down into two separate categories – inside experiences and outside experiences. 

  • Outside experiences include everything that happens outside of us like sensory input, social interactions, the places we go, the things we do, the events that make up our lives, and so on.
  • Inside experiences include everything inside our bodies and brains – like our physical sensations, thoughts, and emotions. 

Our outside and inside experiences are closely linked. So the things that happen outside of us trigger specific thoughts and emotions inside of us. 

For example, if I were to tell a joke and the people around me laughed (outside experience), I might feel a sense of confidence or joy (inside experience). Or, in the more likely scenario (for me), if I tell a joke, and no one laughs (outside experience), I might feel mortified and stupid (inside experience).

But we can also reverse the sequence, so our inside experiences (thoughts, feelings, or general mood) impact our outside experiences.

For example, suppose I’m put on the spot to give a speech at my best friend’s wedding. I hate giving speeches, especially on the fly, so I immediately experience a rush of fear and feel like vomiting (inside experience). When I stand up to speak, my nerves get the best of me and I freeze for what seems like ages and then stumble over my words(outside experience).

Outside vs Inside: Who’s in charge?

Though our outside experiences are important, our inside experiences drive the bus. As humans, we seek outside experiences that lead to positive inside experiences, and we avoid outside experiences that lead to unpleasant inside experiences.

This equation, if we may call it that, is pretty straightforward a lot of the time.

  • Drinking a cold glass of water on a hot day = pleasant –> hydrate!
  • Scoring a goal in your favorite sport = pleasant –> practice and repeat!
  • Getting the stomach flu = unpleasant –> Yuck, avoid germs if possible!
  • Someone laughing at you (not with you) = unpleasant –> Avoid potentially embarrassing situations

Simple enough – right? Well…sometimes. Unfortunately, it isn’t always this easy because we are complex, and so are our experiences.

Unpleasant vs Pleasant ExperiencesWhich wins?

Most situations aren’t all good or all bad. So you often have to tolerate feeling, or at least risk feeling, something you don’t like to experience the rewards of feeling something you do like. In these instances, you may have to decide what’s more important to you: avoiding the negative or experiencing the potentially positive.

You may not realize it, but many of our behaviours result from the (largely unconscious) decision to either avoid potential pain or move towards potentially meaningful, fulfilling, valued, or pleasurable experiences. For example, let’s say I’m single and ready to find a partner and settle down, but I hate the idea of experiencing rejection. So I have to decide, which inside experience will dictate my choices? Is the idea of falling in love worth risking rejection? Or do I stay single and avoid the possibility of ever feeling unloved and unwanted?

Since this is a grief website, I’ll share a quote from Queen Elizabeth that perfectly sums this up, “Grief is the price we pay for love.” Love is the ultimate example of something we do, knowing that it will cause us great joy and great pain. When we love someone, it’s with the knowledge that we could lose them in life and that we will eventually be parted in death. The only way to avoid ever feeling this pain is to never love and connect with another person.

Inside Experiences and Avoidance Behavior

When someone finds the possibility of experiencing unpleasant thoughts or emotions so intolerable that they let this fear guide their choices and behaviours –this is avoidance. The key difference between avoidance and non-avoidance behaviour is that avoidance behaviour seeks to minimize or escape painful or thoughts and emotions at all costs.

Occasional avoidance behaviour makes sense in doses. We all do it from time to time. Sometimes avoiding an experience is inconsequential, and sometimes it makes sense to avoid temporarily. But sometimes it means sacrificing the possibility of experiencing positive thoughts and feelings like happiness, love, comfort, and connection.

Avoidance becomes a problem when it’s a chronic coping mechanism. Here are a few reasons why:

  • When you regularly avoid painful experiences, you never learn how to cope with them. Avoiding these thoughts, emotions, and memories usually won’t make them go away. So ultimately, you have no choice but to keep running from them, which can cause immense anxiety.
  • Some types of avoidance behaviors are quite harmful. For example, isolation and substance abuse.
  • Avoiding potentially painful experiences can prevent you from engaging in experiences that could otherwise be pleasurable, valuable, comforting, supportive, and meaningful (see our example in the section above)

Unfortunately, many of our most potentially positive experiences involve the risk or certainty of also experiencing things like pain, sadness, rejection, embarrassment, failure, or grief. To quote ACT psychologist Steven C. Hayes, 

“Pain and purpose are two sides of the same thing. A person struggling with depression is very likely a person yearning to feel fully. A socially anxious person is very likely a person yearning to connect with others. You hurt where you care, and you care where you hurt.” 

So often a person who tends towards avoidance behaviour may inadvertently find they are closing themselves off from people, places, and experiences that they actually long for because they’re letting fear and avoidance of unpleasant inside experiences guide their behaviour.

Avoidance Behavior in Grief

When you are grieving, every person, place, or thing connected with your loss takes on the risk of reminding you of something painful. And in the early days of grief, reminders are everywhere. Not only are they all around you, but they’re inside, too, in your thoughts and memories. Sometimes it seems you can’t even make it through a few hours without feeling punched in the gut by grief. So in these early days, avoidance behaviour starts to make a lot of sense.  

As mentioned, there are times when occasional avoidance behaviour is helpful in grief. For example, imagine someone who goes back to work after a loved one’s death and finds seeing the family photos on their desk upsetting. They don’t want to get emotional at work, so as much as they love photos of their loved ones, they shut these reminders in a drawer.

It’s okay to take some control over where and when you deal with your grief if you can. You don’t have to give in to emotion every time grief comes calling. As long as you take time to grieve on your own terms and don’t avoid all reminders always, you’re doing okay. However, if you attempt to avoid all reminders, it might begin to create other troubles for you. Some signs that avoidance might be a problem include.

  • Isolating yourself from important people, places, and things.
  • Using substances to avoid feeling or thinking
  • Increased sense of anxiety, worry, or rumination
  • Efforts to avoid all reminders like people, places, objects, and memories
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