It sometimes happens that I have clients ask me for “homework.” Often this is a sign that they are motivated to change, and they want to be able to apply the things that we are working on in the various domains of their lives.
At other times, a bit of exploration reveals that they are looking for some sort of technique or exercise that will help to distract them from deeper problems going on in their lives. They are not alone in finding this to be a tempting path.
We all want to feel like we are taking steps to address the problems in our lives. It gives us a sense of control over our destiny. A sense that we don’t have to just accept the hands that we get dealt in life. It helps us to feel like aren’t just lazily or ineffective.
Sometimes, we know just what to do to address our problems head-on. Other times, we scramble to find something, anything to do. It is often at these times that we can settle on actions that are really distr-actions.
The Problem With Distr-actions
The issue engaging in distr-actions is that they don’t really help to solve problems, it just masks them. It might feel better in the moment, but as soon as the distraction ends you are right back where you started.
What’s worse is that it can be easy to fall into a pattern of avoidance, which results in our worries growing more and more. We then need to exert more and more energy to keep these worries pushed down, out of consciousness. Unfortunately, these worries have a way of creeping back in.
We might experience problems with sleep, our appetite, our sex drive, or a whole host of other physical symptoms. Or we may find that we are tearful, depressed, or perhaps overreacting to small things in our lives. This is because the root issues are still there. They have not gone away.
All of this may seem pretty discouraging. However, you should keep reading, because there is good news: These issues do not need to have this power over you. You can move past them by working through them.
So Wait, I’m Not Supposed to Work to Improve My Life?
At this point, you may be asking yourself, “Now what am I supposed to do? I want to change things, but you’re telling me it’s bad to be taking action?” The answer is not quite that simple. The solution is not to passively wait for your life to change. The solution is to make sure that your actions count.
A good question to ask yourself, when planning or reflecting on your actions is, “Do these actions disconnect me from my problems, or do they actually help address them?” If you suspect that disconnection is part of what is motivating you to take a particular course of action, then your actions are less likely to be helpful in the long-run.
Worse yet, you might even convince yourself that you are working to address your problems, to no avail. This can help to reinforce negative self-talk, like “nothing that I try ever helps.”
Beware of Knowledge – A Seductive Distraction Indeed
People can be quite sophisticated when it comes to distracting ourselves from our core problems. A particularly tempting distraction can be gathering information about how to address problems, while putting off actually addressing them.
I want to be clear. I am by no means saying that it is a bad thing to be gathering knowledge or insight about a problem. I am saying that it can become a problematic distraction if the knowledge gained is not applied in a way that actually addresses the core issues.
An example of this might be someone who suffers from social anxiety, so they read every self-help book on the subject, and they scour the Internet for every blog post that touches on the subject. However, when they have an opportunity to practice being more social, they avoid it, perhaps choosing to stay home to read more about how to change.
In this scenario, there is a lot of frantic motion, but not much meaningful action.
Knowledge, particularly knowledge of your values and emotions, can be incredibly helpful in guiding meaningful action in our lives. The challenge can be remaining mindful of applying the knowledge that we have.
So What Can You do to Avoid Falling into the Avoidance Trap?
- Challenge Yourself to Recognize Avoidance in Your Life – Do an assessment of the things that you are doing to feel better. Are they really creating the change you want? Or are they disconnecting you from your emotions? Are you driving around in circles, or are you heading towards a meaningful goal?
- Get Connected to Your Emotions – The next important step to ending patterns of avoidance is acknowledging what you are avoiding. Take some time to recognize and experience any emotions that you have been avoiding. It my feel threatening at first, but you can only move past these emotions by working through them. If you struggle to know what emotions lie beneath your avoidance, it may be helpful to talk it over with a therapist or friend.
- Plan A Course of Meaningful Action – Once you are clear on what you have been doing to avoid addressing an emotional issue head-on, the next step is to figure out what you can do to make changes. At this stage you want to remain present and connected with your emotions, while focusing on finding a course of action that will truly address your problems.
- Don’t Try to Make Changes in Isolation – Patterns of avoidance are difficult to change by ourselves. Reach out to someone you trust to help you recognize avoidance in your life and help redirect you. Ideally, this will be someone who you are comfortable with challenging you (or less uncomfortable). It is hard to be self-reflective when we are feeling defensive.
Practice! – Tuning into your deeper emotional experience and challenging avoidance are processes that takes some practice. It can be helpful to think of it as a muscle that gets stronger the more you use it.