When people say, "I'd rather get a root canal than look at my unpaid bills," they are actually exhibiting a universally favorite coping mechanism in the face of fear—avoidance. (Also, they probably have never had a root canal.)
Burying your head in the sand will not make you invisible. It will simply make it harder for you to breathe.
The following passages from the timeless classic Louisa May Alcott's Little Women (Chapter 28) describe the agony the oldest sister Meg faces when her shopping extravagances are about to be discovered.
Meg knew her husband's income, and she loved to feel that he trusted her, not only with his happiness, but what some men seem to value more--his money. She knew where it was, was free to take what she liked, and all he asked was that she should keep account of every penny, pay bills once a month, and remember that she was a poor man's wife. Till now she had done well, been prudent and exact, kept her little account books neatly, and showed them to him monthly without fear. But that autumn the serpent got into Meg's paradise, and tempted her like many a modern Eve, not with apples, but with dress.
The story goes on to describe how Meg, in her quest to keep up with her friend Sally Moffat, ends up spending rather extravagantly on clothes. Not only is Meg filled with buyer's remorse, but she desperately wishes to avoid the subject in conversations with her husband.
A few days before she had done a dreadful thing, and it weighed upon her conscience…When John got out his books that night, Meg's heart sank.
When our hearts sink
We may not worry about needing to justify our shopping indulgences to someone else—it's 2022, after all, the era of "you do you." But I bet countless other things can make our hearts sink. And most of us expertly deal with these "things"—the dumbbells on our conscience—the same way we'd deal with someone defending Harvey Weinstein. Through complete avoidance.
Note: There are many examples where avoidance is healthy, such as when you choose to forgo that third slice of pie at dinner, even when it appears to have your name all over it. To be clear, this article is about using avoidance in an unhealthy manner, as a crutch, when we face challenging situations.
What we avoid
What each of us avoids can be subjective and wide-ranging—stepping on the scale, opening up bills, picking up the phone for a difficult conversation. But the results of all types of avoidance are consistent and predictable, and not in a positive way.
Through avoidance, we create mountains out of molehills—piles of unopened bills, cluttered closets, love handles around our waists, unspoken conversations, etc., that are sure to overwhelm even the best-intentioned among us.
But first, what does avoidance look like?
Do your clothes tumble down every time you open a closet, or do you lose your cellphone again in a mountain of uncleared papers on your desk? Your problem might not be one of organizing but rather one of avoidance.
So before embarking on a Marie-Kondo-inspired decluttering session, it would be helpful to analyze how the mess developed in the first place.
Why we avoid
Avoidance behavior is an evolutionary defensive coping mechanism, albeit a maladaptive one, in the face of fear and anxiety.
According to the American Psychiatric Association, fear is the thought of the immediate danger that triggers our flight and fight response. Conversely, anxiety "is more often associated with muscle tension and vigilance in preparation for future danger and cautious or avoidance behaviors."
By avoiding the thing we are either fearful or anxious about, we give ourselves a brief respite from the ensuing discomfort that could result if we confront the unpleasant situation. What we forget to realize is that the rest is only temporary. Avoidance is like a band-aid on a gash, simply hiding the cut from view. It does not change the underlying situation.
Like most evolutionary behaviors, we've honed the skill of avoidance over time, and it's a coping mechanism that most of us resort to in tough times. So, the good news is that it isn't a unique problem.
The bad news, however, is that it is still a problem. A serious one. And our procrastinating tendencies don't help.
When we don't feel like facing a challenge or tackling an arduous task, we resort to humanity's go-to solution: procrastination.
"Tomorrow" is the mystical land where 99% of human achievement is stored.
And procrastinating a little bit every day is the surest way to build overwhelm, which takes no time to mutate into stress. Not only do we then appear to be unreliable to others, but we also start to question our own judgment.
So, how do we stop burying our heads in the sand and start to face our fears?
Avoidance is the best short-term strategy to escape conflict and the best long-term strategy to ensure suffering. Brendon Burchard
Here are the steps to tackle avoidance head-on and get on with your life. While the words below may sound like self-help mumbo jumbo, they are proven methods to help you develop a sense of fearlessness that can be completely life-transforming.
Set aside time to practice these regularly, if possible, every day.
To remove an elephant from a room, you first need to acknowledge its existence. Running to a different room and hoping the elephant will find its own way out is, at best, wishful thinking, but more likely, just a colossal waste of your time and energy. Not to mention, it can be pretty boring for the elephant too.
So, be honest and list everything you've been avoiding—unpaid bills, unreturned phone calls, missed health checkups, overcluttered spaces, the business idea you're too afraid to start, etc.
2. Pick one
Do this preferably first thing in the morning before everyone else lays claims on your time—pick one item from the list of things you avoid. It does not have to be the one you detest the most, but imagine the relief dealing with that would bring.
Set a five-minute timer and throw yourself a pity party if you must, but when the timer goes off, it's time to get started.
3. Baby steps
Start with baby steps if you must. If you're afraid of the bills, open a couple first and acknowledge your fear. With practice, this will get easier.
You'll soon realize that as fearful as those unopened and possibly overdue bills looked; they still didn't have the power to devour you. Celebrate the little victories.
Remember, "This too shall pass."
4. Take action
Formulate a plan of action to stop avoiding and start dealing with the problem at hand. No, it won't be easy. But commit to dealing with it for a few minutes or a couple of hours each day rather than have it consume you (consciously or otherwise) day and night.
Keep going until the mountain becomes a molehill again, or better still is completely razed to the ground.
Start from step 1 again on the next item on your list.
After the first problem is tackled, like a muscle you've worked out, you'll find the energy and enthusiasm to keep going. Soon, doing hard things will be your M.O. And that is about the most powerful habit you can have in your arsenal.