This is a guest post by Zac Parsons. Enjoy. – Erich
“Ah yes, its Monday. I have to be focused and productive again.”
“Now that the weekend is over, I have to go back to work.”
“I have to get up early today, or else I will get fired.”
Look at all of the things that we HAVE to do in life. Really, look at them in your own life. Write them down if you would like. How long is your list? Now, in a certain sense, what you HAVE to do, depends on what the consequence is. It also depends on what you are relating the action in question to. In this case, I asked about life. So your answers should have something to do with eating, breathing, sleeping, etc. In order to stay alive (to avoid the consequence of death), you HAVE to do these things. All other “have to’s” in our lives work the same way. You just need to discover what the consequence is. The “or else”.
The alternative to a “have to” is a “want to”. Instead of looking at the consequence, you look at the positive result of the action in question. You are drawn to this result, and you WANT to obtain it or achieve it. It’s not something you are running from, it’s something that you are running to. The difference may seem subtle, but it is HUGE!
To do anything, we need energy. This is why we eat, breathe, sleep, etc., so that we can build up energy to interact with the world around us. If everyone in the world was running from what consequences they want to avoid, the world would be chaos. If everyone was drawn to something and there were no consequences to flee, we would have peace on earth or heaven on earth. Some people believe that this is how the world will end, in one of those two fashions. In the meantime, how would you like to live your life?
Our minds work in much the same way. If we feel like we HAVE to do some sort of task, our minds will come up with all sorts of creative ways to avoid doing the task. This has been called “creative avoidance”. We can fill our day with all sorts of tasks and actions that are basically “good” and “productive”, but they keep us from our HAVE to task, so that is where we really subconsciously value them. Our mind is protecting us from it, since it is associated with the negative consequence of not doing it. When we understand the positive value of what will be gained from the task, then we WANT to do it!
A Personal Example
This exact thing happened to me today! I woke up and sat down at my computer to start the work day. I knew that I had to write an article today, so why not start early? Well, I noticed that I had some emails in my inbox. Those have to be looked at eventually, right? So I sidetracked myself on that. I had a stack of CDs next to me that were not in my iTunes library. That will help unclutter my desk, and that’s a good thing, right? So I spent 30 minutes doing that. My running shoes are right next to me, I think that I will go out and get some exercise for my body and help to relax my mind! So I even went off to do that.
My mind can be a genius at getting me out of things. That’s why I procrastinated with tests and homework all through school. I allowed myself to be motivated by the negative result, and not by the positive of the completed task. So, when I locked on to the value of writing my article, I realized that I WANTED to do it. I saw the value in the completed product. The words just started flowing. And what a great feeling that is.
Creative Avoidance Can be Helpful
For a healthy psyche and the accomplishment of your life’s purpose, creative avoidance can be helpful. Jesus said to turn the other cheek when you’re angry, but that is not the avoidance I am talking about today. In Psychology, avoidance means the passive act of not doing something that is good for you and using or doing something else instead that is harmful, or that hinders your personal growth and healing. Procrastination is a first cousin to avoidance, though usually of shorter duration, and with an end result of ultimately doing what is good for you after some delay.
When It’s Dysfunctional to Avoid
Take Jamie for example. She is hypersensitive to disapproval and rejection, she fears the possibility of being shamed or ridiculed, and these feelings lead to limited interactions with her peers. Jamie”s social avoidance stems from feeling deeply inadequate. As a result, she finds it difficult to have easily satisfying interpersonal relationships. Avoidance in this sense is highly detrimental not only to her personal success, but also to a good quality of life. If you’ve got to the point where you are avoiding paying your bills because doing so triggers irrational feelings of scarcity and insecurity then the avoidance may be dysfunctional.
Dysfunctional avoidance are activities that harm or hinder clear understanding and longevity in relationships, feeling good about oneself, and having normal effectiveness in the world. These types of thought, feeling, and behavioral avoidance actions are patterns that can create enormous stress, anxiety, and depression. These patterns can be detected in the self-judging, self-blaming remarks we make about ourselves, and in some of the false beliefs we have about what we can’t do. Be very careful about the way you talk to yourself. Learning to manage your thoughts will help you manage your actions.
Dysfunctional avoidance is sometimes a faulty coping mechanism that kicks into gear, often without conscious intent. The more they travel that unconscious path, the deeper the “habit ruts” in their brains become. Once in this rut, it’s easier to get stuck in the negative “I can’t” frame of mind, which is often self-fulfilling.
Dysfunctional avoidance is often fueled by patterns of unconscious denial of actual realities. If you find yourself creatively avoiding something, regardless of your motive or intent, ask yourself if what you are doing is justified or for a greater good. If the results of what you are doing harms yourself or others, think twice about doing it. One of the biggest avoidances is conflict, but as Garth Brooks said, “The greatest conflicts are not between two people but between one person and himself.”
Creative Avoidance Can Be Useful
Not all avoidance is bad. Sometimes it can be good so long as the timing and time spent allows us to evaluate our circumstances, brainstorm, and/or review technological changes like we wrote about in Determining Your Purpose in Life or Process.
Sometimes creative avoidances can not only be justified, but altogether useful. For example, avoiding an assignment by taking a walk can be good for your health. And doing chores that need done anyway before doing the the thing in which you are trying to avoid can be good as long as the chores actually needed to get done and you don’t spend your entire allotted time doing them.
Usually, creative avoidance involves choosing one activity over another that might be deemed worthy by an outside party, such as joining the military, but inside you know that the real reason you joined was because you had just broken up with someone and you wanted to get away. You will still benefit from the military, regardless of the motive.
But, sometimes creative avoidance involves a guilty pleasure in the act of choosing. For example, Jake goes out dancing to avoid doing his homework, and then is unable to complete his homework the next day because he is hungover. We might question if that avoidance choice was creative or dysfunctional, in other words, what was the intent or motive?
How to Know the Difference Between Creative and Dysfunctional Avoidance
To help determine if you or someone else is using avoidance creatively or dysfunctionally, ask the following questions:
- Is the activity freeing or binding? – Does this activity allow you to avoid something you don’t like?
- Is the activity beneficial or empowering? – Does this activity produce anything that will help you or anyone else?
Answering the question restates the avoidance, which helps us be aware of what motivates our actions. In this way we can better manage our actions. An en example of a restatement is:
I’m choosing to do this instead of that right now, so that I can return to that when I’m ready with clarity, courage, and a fresh set of eyes.
It is possible to change our thought process in order to change our actions. We can stop dysfunctional avoidance completely if we pay attention to what is real and less of our intuition. If it helps you, start a journal recording when you begin to think of something to do instead of what you’re “supposed” to be doing – and your motivations for doing so or reasons why you didn’t give in.
Creative avoidance can be an adventure, but it can also cost you valuable time and energy. Learning to manage our thoughts and actions helps us see the patterns we can develop in our lives, which gives us the tools and ability to change.