Experiential Avoidance of Thoughts and Feelings
Becoming aware of the ways we avoid unpleasant thoughts and feelings as well as activities that we fear could trigger those thoughts and feelings is an important step toward mindfulness. Conversely, mindfulness practice is an excellent way to increase awareness of this tendency. Psychotherapy with an Acceptance and Commitment (ACT) therapist can also be extremely beneficial because ACT therapists are trained specifically to help people improve mindfulness, identify and pursue personal life values, and reduce experiential avoidance.
Whether we achieve awareness of our avoidant behavior through mindfulness practice on our own or with the help of an ACT therapist or both, once we have brought this destructive behavior into the light of day, we can choose to actively practice self-acceptance instead. The self-acceptance I refer to is the acceptance of thoughts and feelings.
A Self-Attenuating Habit
Experiential avoidance involves psychological rigidity, and it is this rigidity that often prevents us from behaving in ways that are in harmony with our life values, such as pursuing activities that could provide us with a sense of meaning and purpose. Let me give you an example.
In order to avoid the emotional discomfort of being in a group setting with people I don’t know, I might decide not to accept an invitation to a party. I may decline despite knowing that these events offer opportunities to enjoy being in community and to have a sense of belonging: life values that I hold dear. I have done this despite knowing that my discomfort will be accompanied by the opportunity to grow—another life value of mine. Attending the event would be an act of loving self-care, and dealing with any emotional discomfort while I’m there would offer the opportunity to strengthen self-efficacy and mastery. All of these benefits are lost to me if I engage in the self-attenuating behavior of avoidance, so I lose twice: I deny myself the opportunity to grow as well as an opportunity to engage in healthy behavior I value.
Exploring Avoidant Behaviors
We avoid uncomfortable inner experience in myriad ways. One example is through addictions. Addictions of all types lead to a very constricted and restricted lifestyle that is necessarily centered around avoiding thoughts, mental images, sensations, or emotions. This is why people who have lived with addictions often appear to be psychologically and emotionally underdeveloped, regardless of their age. They have instinctively distracted themselves from the precious growth opportunities that uncomfortable feelings present. Compounding this, the shame associated with addiction contributes to self-hatred and low self-esteem, in effect multiplying the impulse to avoid their inner subjective experience.
Tics and twitches are fairly benign behaviors compared to drug addictions. Nevertheless, they are often unconscious attempts to evade our experience, and interestingly, obsessive-compulsive behaviors of many kinds, including seemingly insignificant nervous tics, have a similar effect on self-esteem as do addictions. They develop into nervous habits because they are effective in providing a distraction from unwanted thoughts or feelings, but they work at great cost. As with all forms of experiential avoidance, they interfere with our ability to fully experience our aliveness and they are at cross-purposes to the cultivation of a sense of mastery.