The elephant in the room no one wants to touch. You evade it, pretend things are okay. Something remains unspoken—an awkwardness: the boundary violation, the adoration, or the confusion.
The avoidance that keeps us from progressing forward.
The idea you aren’t yet able to share.
The crush withheld from disclosure.
The resentment that you bury.
The envies, jealousies, or rage. The fear.
You have a felt sense that something is off. An edge to your conscious awareness: that leaves you with an erry tension in the air.
Avoidance is a verb: to steer clear from, dodge, ignore or evade.
We defend against what is uncomfortable. The pandemic asked us to stop avoiding things that have been there all along: inequalities, anxieties, death. Interpersonally and collectively, what are we not talking about? What do we leave out?
I’m interested in not just what’s said but what isn’t said. Why don’t we let ourselves be honest and vulnerable with one another? How come we don’t talk much about death until it’s right in our face? Why don’t we expose our hearts more often?
Avoidance helps us escape something we perceive as painful. Ever run into or reconnect with someone from your past that upset or betrayed you? Did you notice the tension of what wasn’t said? The awkward feelings float somewhere in the air but are never spoken. We tell ourselves reasons to keep our deeper feelings locked away. Maybe it’s better to leave things alone. Sometimes it hurts us more to avoid.
At times we’re slapped conscious about our avoidance. A client called it a lightbulb moment. “I had many others tell me I had something with my relationship with my mother, but I always dismissed it.” He could no longer avoid what he now knew, at least not if he wanted to take responsibility for his personal growth.
Another client who recently had a significant loss spoke of noticing that she had avoided her grief only because her daughter started asking about the deceased. She didn’t know how to tell her. Confronted by her core value to be a good mother, she had to face what she avoided.
What we choose to avoid is interesting. Whenever we focus on some topic in conversation, we are, at the same time, choosing to NOT talk about something else. When we watch one channel, we are choosing not to watch another. Maybe a family avoids talking about a deceased loved one because they want to avoid their grief. Or grief becomes consuming, avoiding any pleasure or celebration. Many corporations and institutions have long avoided acknowledging that white supremacy continues to permeate our society. We can avoid admitting our privileges.
What ISN’T said says a lot. To my mind, subtle avoidances may, on the surface, allow us to skirt around what we believe will be uncomfortable. Whether it’s addressing the hurt we’ve caused another individually or acknowledging system oppressions within our societal structures, over time, those unspoken areas do more damage when avoided than when they’re voiced. Reparations can only come when we acknowledge the pain caused. In our societal reckoning, we must bring our shadows out into the light. Avoidance doesn’t help us evolve.
We avoid for many reasons. Maybe we avoid as a way of protecting ourselves or others from some version of pain. We don’t want to confess the betrayal, so we live within guilt, believing that we’re sparing the other harm. Maybe we don’t like to acknowledge the inevitable end of life, so we avoid discussing it. It’s uncomfortable and feels easier to sidestep.
Sometimes we avoid transparency to manipulate another. We don’t tell the truth, hoping to sway the process in our preferred favor. Sometimes we tell ourselves we have to avoid to preserve the relationship because it doesn’t appear to withstand talking more openly. Avoidance may be the only way to keep what’s there, even if what’s there is broken.
There are consequences to chronic avoidance. When we continuously try to evade or sweep thoughts, feelings, and truths under the rug, we are sidestepping our way through. Longstanding avoidances manifest psychosomatically in our minds and bodies, causing more disease and suffering. Children feel when their parents hide or lie to them: it lives somewhere in their psyche. Our personalities can manifest around misinformation. We become suspicious and untrusting in relationships where we don’t feel we’re getting the whole picture–some part of us senses it. What we avoid will find its way into our worlds whether we like it or not. We might as well be honest with ourselves.
The nature of avoidance tells us to believe that what we’re avoiding SHOULD be avoided. It’s better to keep it quiet, pretend it’s not there.
Because it might feel uncomfortable to say the thing that no one else wants to say, it might feel awkward to expose yourself more and feel the emotions that you’d instead not let yourself touch. Inherent in nature, avoidances make us turn our backs on ourselves. We are frightened, afraid of what we’ll find, and cling to the safety of what we already know. Shame lives here.
We can never have a curiosity with our backs to ourselves. Honest inquiry helps us soothe the shame that avoidance convinces us of. We must give rise to the parts that beg to remain hidden. This exploration is rich with possibility, if only we could bear it. Whatever we’re avoiding needs considering. If we can lift it up, we could shift something essential. We only need to start to be open and curious enough to engage with it.
Drinking, drugs, overworking, social media, intellectualizing, staying busy-any behavior can be a form of avoidance. The behaviors aren’t in themselves the problem. Mysteriously, those behaviors are helping us avoid something else. What is it about avoiding that feels temporarily relieving? Consequently, how does it also block the authentic nature that lets us live a complete life?
Who do you avoid talking to, and why? Think of the awkwardness around someone you disagree with or don’t like. How does one even start talking to someone of the opposite political divide these days? How do you engage with someone who’s had a vastly different life journey than you? How do you engage with someone that, on the surface, you don’t like very much? Are you turned on or off by the idea of it?
Engaging with others that are different, have a different life experience with openness, compassion, and curiosity can enhance your heart, compassion, and understanding. It also provides the benefit of authentic connection, something we as humans need to survive. We often avoid these opportunities because it makes us question our sense of what we know to be genuine and value in ourselves.
Sometimes we avoid for protection: we try to avoid getting hit by a car when crossing the street. We try to avoid being hurt by others; we don’t want to hear anything from them that makes us question ourselves.
But maybe there are times when we avoid things that might serve us:
- Letting down our guards
- Listening non-defensively
- Speaking up for ourselves
- Asserting our needs
We avoid things that are uncomfortable even when those things are necessary for our growth.
I came into sessions one day after having surgery on one of my fingers. I noticed which clients mentioned what was different about my presentation. Some clients inquired and expressed their good wishes; other clients ignored or missed it completely. I wondered if some of them had noticed but felt they could not ask me. I pondered to myself about what that meant about them and our relationship.
We are mysteriously complicated: Our shadows, inner worlds, and messiness of the human experience. Sometimes we can be afraid of ourselves, fearful of others. Sometimes we royally mess up. And many times, we want to avoid it all. Avoidance happens on our interpersonal levels and our collective realms. Some of us avoid emotions, or adventure, or change. Sadly, some of us avoid self-reflection. What might we begin to learn when we ask ourselves more intentionally, what might we be avoiding?
There is a mysterious quality about what we avoid and why. In your relationships, are there areas where you are evading? What have you wanted to try to speak to but have thus far avoided? At the core of it, what are you unwilling to feel?