Experiential avoidance is a term that originated in contextual behavioral science research. It refers to a common psychological pattern to which we are all susceptible: the attempt to avoid unpleasant thoughts, images, feelings, sensations, and emotions.
Experiential avoidance prevents us from being accepting of and present to our natural inner impulses, and this is problematic in a number of respects. In detaching us from feeling, experiential avoidance interferes with the very function of emotional response, which is to inform us of our inner subjective experience. And because our inner experience is what informs our conscious choices, experiential avoidance has the effect of limiting our options. It prevents us from acting on opportunities to pursue the values that give our lives meaning.
Habitual experiential avoidance can be terribly debilitating, as evidenced by the finding that it is a common trait found in people who have difficulty making normal, everyday decisions. Research psychologist Michael Twohig and his team found that decision making becomes challenging for such people precisely because they are out of touch with the inner cues and direct experience that could otherwise inform the kinds of ordinary decisions other people routinely make without much thought. Imagine forgetting to go to bed because you can’t tell that you’re tired, or forgetting to eat because you don’t know you’re hungry.
In addition to limiting our choices and even making choosing more difficult, experiential avoidance carries another danger: it telegraphs and repeatedly reinforces the message that our feelings don’t matter—and that we should be ashamed of them. This kind of self-denial is the underlying cause of much of the current epidemic of depression in the industrialized world.
Feelings of sadness, anger, frustration, anxiety, and grief—the emotions we are most likely to try to avoid—are normal and healthy; we cannot function very well when we are out of touch with them. Our inner world informs us of our needs and wants, and it is through our inner experience that we interact with our environment. If we tamp that experience down, we cannot live fully, nor can we grow. The tragedy of experiential avoidance is that when we deny our inner life we deny our aliveness—and even our very existence.
Keys to Overcoming Experiential Avoidance
Becoming aware of our avoidant behavior is an essential first step in practicing healthier behavior, and 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 specifically trained 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 acceptance of thoughts, sensations, and emotions.