Avoidance. Procrastination. Running away. Telling yourself or other people you're going to do something, then never doing it... and then spiralling into a shame and guilt cycle. Sound familiar?
It does to me! I’ve worked on transforming my own avoidance patterns for years, and as a therapist I help people transform theirs. If you've got an avoidance pattern you want to shift, read on. In this post I'm going to explain:
Why you might want to shift avoidance and why it limits you
How it’s essentially a old unconscious safety strategy from childhood
The step by step to create new conscious safety strategies that serve you now.
So: Why shift avoidance? Avoidance becomes an issue when it's one of the ONLY tools in our toolbox to deal with challenging, uncomfortable, or unsafe situations. As children, avoidance was one of our first go-to strategies that we used to try and keep ourselves safe. If we didn't learn any other strategies, however, and if as adults we automatically avoid, disconnect, run away, or hide when we're faced with discomfort... then our capacity to engage with and connect with ourselves, other people, and life itself can get compromised.
In other words: if your avoidance doesn't feel like a choice but feels a compulsion, then it's keeping you stuck and small!
But first, let’s figure out if it’s healthy or unhealthy avoidance. To do so, check the outcome vs. the process:
OUTCOME: Is the action of avoiding/turning away/running from…. achieving the outcome you want? And is your desired outcome a goal that is healthy for you and for others around you? If your honest answer is yes, then you’re most likely practicing healthy avoidance. We need healthy avoidance to make healthy choices in life!
PROCESS: Is the action of avoiding/turning away/running from... a repeating pattern that you feel you have no choice but to do? If your honest answer is yes, then this is probably an unhealthy avoidance pattern, most likely stemming from too much unresolved or unprocessed emotional pain (i.e. some sort of trauma) that is getting triggered.
If you’ve identified your avoidance pattern and want to transform it, here’s a step-by-step way to do so.
FIRST: FIGURE OUT THE OLD PATTERN.
1. Be compassionate with your avoidance. Again: Avoidance is an adaptive survival strategy that you learned to try and keep yourself safe, and it’s still trying to keep you safe now. If you don’t respect your avoidance pattern as you shift it, and instead come from a place of blame, shame or self-criticism, your avoidance pattern will most likely resist attempts to change.
2. Be curious about your avoidance. Ask yourself these reflection points, and write down the answers: What am I trying to protect myself from by avoiding? Is this a real threat in the moment (healthy to avoid), or is this the imprinted memory of an old threat that is no longer true for me (old avoidance playing out)?
3. Get to know the negative beliefs attached to your avoidance pattern. What’s the negative internal dialogue? Is it along the lines of “I can’t do this”? “I’m going to fail at this?” “I’m disorganized”? “I can’t deal with this”? Write these beliefs down. Circle the one that feels like it’s the “stickiest”... i.e. the one that’s keeping you stuck the most.
4. Get to know the physical sensations attached to your avoidance pattern. What does the actual experience feel like in your body? Is it tightness? Tension? Dizziness? Gripping in the stomach? Write these feelings down.
5. Unpack your avoidance patterns’ history. Most often, avoidance became our unconscious “go-to” move when we were overwhelmed or scared when we were young, and when we didn’t have the soothing influence of a safe adult to mediate our feelings and protect us from fear. Heal the roots of your avoidance by going back in your memory, connecting with your child self at the age you learned the avoidance pattern, and ask (write down the answer): What did my younger self need at that time to feel safe, understood, soothed, and protected, that they did not get? Offer that support to your younger self right in this moment. Write down the soothing words of care and understanding in a letter to your younger self. This part is especially important, because it will become the basis for the new healthy safety strategy you’re going to come up with.
THEN: MAKE A NEW PATTERN!
1. Rescript your internal dialogue. The soothing words of care that you came up with… write them down. Stick them to the wall. This is going to be your new internal dialogue that you’re going to repattern yourself with, every single day. “I can’t do it” ...might turn into “One step at a time, I’m learning this.” “I’m a failure” might turn into “It’s okay to not know how to do this yet, I’m getting the support I need for this.”
2. Feel your feelings. Practice feeling into the discomfort that the avoidance is blocking you from feeling. Go slow, especially if the feelings are intense. Try placing a hand over your heart or hugging yourself as you feel into the actual physical sensations of your experience. What does it actually feel like in your body? Gently name the sensations: "I'm feeling tightness in my chest... I'm feeling a tension in my stomach..." and let the sensations rise and fall, come and go. Gently name emotions as you feel them: “I’m feeling overwhelmed…” “I’m feeling fear…” etc.
3. Trust the process, and be compassionate with the pace of change. Avoidance doesn’t shift overnight. Don’t expect it to. The deeper the patterns go, the longer they might take to transform. But they WILL change over time. Be consistent with your repatterning efforts. The saying “feel it to heal it” definitely applies here. You need to FEEL what’s underneath your avoidance pattern to HEAL it.
4. Be consistent with repatterning yourself. Be compassionate. Rescript your beliefs. Feel your feelings. Trust the process. Repeat, repeat, repeat! Write the process down and stick it to your wall.
In summary, here’s what you just learned to transform your avoidance pattern:
Figure out your old avoidance pattern. Be compassionate with it and understand it’s just trying to keep you safe; otherwise it will resist change. Be curious about what it’s trying to protect. Get clear on the negative beliefs attached to it. Get clear on the physical sensations attached to it. Figure out the unmet needs underlying the pattern that your younger self needed, and meet those needs now.
Make a new pattern. Rescript your internal dialogue using the soothing words of care and support that your younger self needed but didn’t get. Say those words to yourself every single day. Feel your feelings in your body slowly and gently. Be consistent, compassionate, and trust the process!