Fear and Avoidance

Michael Church, educator, clinical psychologist, author, and co-host of this blog, once said to me, “The first question I ask my clients is, ‘What are you avoiding?’” Think about that question, because Church is saying that all who seek counseling for adjustment and coping problems have “avoidance” at the root of their problems. And, indeed, throughout this blog we have entries that again and again point to assessing and identifying avoidance actions as the first step in successful coping.

Let’s consider another question: “Avoidance is obviously an action, so what emotional state is motivating that action?” The answer is “Fear.” Fear is the great motivator that goads you into avoidance actions, so truly, if you want to stop avoiding facing your problems, you must first deal in some realistic fashion with your underlying fears.

Kyle says, “I never seem to be able to stay in a relationship once it starts to get serious. At that point I back off, the girl gets pissed, and that’s that.” “OK,” you reply, “Kyle clearly has a fear of commitment.”

Well sure, but the core issue is much more than that. Perhaps it’s really a fear of rejection or loss, failures that Kyle simply cannot face. Perhaps when Kyle faces a situation calling for a commitment, it triggers abandonment fears in Kyle that can be traced to his childhood. Maybe mom was an unreliable caregiver and Kyle was terrified of this common childhood fear. The point is, in general, the core fear underlying avoidance actions is usually not obvious. Finding this core may require some soul searching, some honest looks into the mirror, perhaps even some professional help, before you can begin to confront and correct the avoidance reactions.

Kim really wants to apply to medical school, and she has the academic record to consider that action as a realistic one to pursue. Yet, she is deathly afraid of failure, and of confirming her family belief that as a “girl,” there’s no way she should consider being a doctor. Nurse? Yeh, that’s OK, but a doctor? Kim’s fear may go back to her childhood when she was always reminded of limitations on her options imposed by her gender. Now, as a young woman, she must restrict her goals to avoid awakening the primal fear implanted in childhood.

Cult leaders and others who try to manipulate your thinking and your devotion are well aware of the importance of constantly reminding you of things you should fear and avoid: parental standards; those who look, act, or worship differently; other nations; immigrants; politicians of a particular philosophy, etc., etc., etc. By constantly bombarding you with boogeymen who are everywhere, you eventually succumb to the message, lose all sense of personal empowerment, and turn your life over to the leader. In short, you become a dependent vegetable.

Obviously I could go on and on, and many entries in this blog present a variety of examples of avoidance actions and the fears that drive them. The point is, effective coping involves facing your fears, determining if they are realistic, and also determining if they are under your control or not. Excessive dependency on others, which is incompatible with personal autonomy and empowerment, makes the process all but impossible.

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