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Avoidance of Thoughts and Feelings is Unhealthy

Avoidance now means more suffering later.

Experiential Avoidance and Intimacy

In recent posts, I have discussed the concept of experiential avoidance, which is the conscious or unconscious avoidance of unpleasant thoughts, feelings, and feared life activities. A simple example of experiential avoidance would involve staying home instead of going out because of anxiety or depression. As I’ve pointed out before, avoident behavior reinforces the very thoughts and feelings we wish to avoid.                                                                                                        

In their 2009 book, Mindfulness-and Acceptance-Based Behavioral Therapies in Practice, psychologists Liz Roemer and Sue Orsillo point out that one of the most devastating results of experiential avoidance is that it makes intimacy in relationships impossible. The reason for this is that our true emotions allow us to communicate with others and maintain healthy relationships with them. Whether we avoid and conceal our emotions consciously or unconsciously, we deny ourselves the possibility of validation, understanding, and empathy—necessary ingredients for health and even survival.

This happens even among professionals who “should know better.” Therapists are not immune to the impulse to distance themselves from their inner world. For example, I have been in a therapy group for psychotherapists for more than sixteen years. Even after all this time, some of us still occasionally feel frustrated with the lack of empathy we get when we describe a personal struggle. This, though, is invariably the result of our own failure to reveal our true feelings. When we allow ourselves to fully experience what we are feeling, we are then better able to express our authentic feelings, which means others are then more likely to feel and freely express empathy.

A Writing Exercise

Dr. Steven Hayes, co-founder of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy

I’d like to leave you with a writing exercise from the book Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life by psychologist Stephen C. Hayes. This exercise can help build awareness of the impact and cost of experiential avoidance in your life. Keep in mind that we are all blind to some of the ways we engage in experiential avoidance; for that reason, it is valuable to get into group or individual therapy. 

The memories and images I most avoid include: _______________________________________________.

Avoiding these memories and images costs me in the following ways: ________________________________.

The bodily sensations I most avoid include: __________________________________________________.

Avoiding these bodily sensations costs me in the following ways: ____________________________________.

The emotions I most avoid include: ________________________________________________________.

Avoiding these emotions costs me in the following ways: __________________________________________.

The thoughts I most avoid include: _________________________________________________________.

Avoiding these thoughts costs me in the following ways: __________________________________________.

The behavioral predispositions or urges to respond that I most avoid include: ___________________________.

Avoiding these behavioral predispositions or urges to respond costs me in the following ways: __________________________________________________________________________________.

 

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